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Sean Scully: Artist who added the wow factor to museum opening

Having just spent £17m on a facelift, the Ulster Museum needed its first major exhibition to be big on the ‘wow’ factor. Fortunately it is.

‘Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed: The Imagery of Sean Scully’ is a major retrospective on the career of a man often dubbed the world’s greatest living abstract painter and any museum of note, anywhere in the world, would be proud to host it.

Primarily these are paintings, many of them on a monumental scale, featuring the kind of geometric abstraction that has become a trademark of the artist’s highly individual and instantly recognisable style. Blocks and bricks of colour on the vertical and the horizontal are built up in broad brushstrokes and edged by lines that run from rigidly straight to softer stripes.

As a long-time fan I was delighted to join a small band of journalists and broadcasters on a tour of the exhibition in the company of the artist himself.

We were allowed to interrupt and ask questions as we went around, but there’s not a lot of space, and he freely admits he’s “a gasbag”. He’s also clearly a philosopher as well as an artist. As we moved from canvas to canvas in a sea of stunning Scullys, he shared the thought processes behind the evolution of his work.

Looking at a painting called Night into Day he said: “This painting is about the passage of time and the closure of day with a tremendous sense of body weight.” He goes on to talk about re-connecting abstraction with the matter of life and putting it back into the world. I understand it perfectly as he says it, but then I happen to suggest to him that these are not easy paintings. When met with stunned silence and a shrug of the shoulders, I backtrack a bit asking what he wants the audience coming to the exhibition to see?

To say he wasn’t pleased when I asked that question would be something of an understatement. His reply was “What would you think I’d want them to see. I’ve been talking about it.” Fair enough, but what I actually wanted was a slightly more simplified answer, something to give the average museum-goer a bit of a steer, because even if you know nothing about abstract art this exhibition is still a visual feast. I failed.

He did go on to say that “you can’t come to an exhibition with nothing, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself” and of course he’s right. Like everything else in life the more you put into it the more you get out. Ultimately, having spent an hour or so in his company I found it hard to get a handle on the man, but the artist is epic and this is a stunning exhibition.

Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed: The Imagery of Sean Scully is on at the Ulster Museum until February 20, 2010

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