Backs and Fronts: The Painting That Changed the Course of Art


Among those in attendance to hear the excitement caused at the first Backs and Fronts exhibition at New York’s PS1 arts center (part of the Museum of Modern Art) in 1982 was art historian and writer Robert Morgan, who recently remembered the effect the work had made back then. “This painting took the exhibition by storm. There was nothing like it: 11 panels that move horizontally across an open field, an infinity of stripes of color that visually move up, down and sideways as if they were the notes for a score. “Morgan’s equation of the work’s vocabulary with the threshold and grammar of the musical composition coincides perfectly with the creation of the painting, which began as a smaller, more intimate and reserved response to Pablo Picasso’s famous 1921 Cubist portrait of Three Musicians.

“I thought it would be better to have four musicians,” Scully told me, remembering how he initially went about creating a relatively humble quartet of records that played the rhythms of Picasso’s famous trio. Scully had lived in New York for five years, an aspiring young artist who patiently paid his tuition after graduating from university in England in 1972 and I have always loved his geometric figures that were close to abstraction but never crossed the line. Over time, I somehow found the courage to expand the work. And then I started expanding it stylistically until it was thunderous in the end. ”

Turning point

Also witnessing the clap of thunder from Backs and Fronts was the American art historian and philosopher David Carrier, who views the arrival of the painting as not only crucial to the development of contemporary art, but also a turning point in his own development as a thinker and writer. “Shortly after it was shown” Carrier wrote, “everything has changed for [Scully]. Usually, an art historian only has literal experience of the events he or she is describing. But I know this story from friends because I was there. I remember like yesterday when I entered PS 1. At the time Scully didn’t have a dealer; nor was he well known in New York. Immediately his art inspired me, I met him and when I tried to explain it I became an art critic. “

For Scully, the breakthrough that Backs and Fronts represented personally and creatively cannot be overestimated. It was, he tells me, “a very big step”. Like all big steps, however, countless small steps made the ultimate leap possible. As a teenager, she studied at a printer in London (where his family had moved from his native Dublin as a toddler), Scully regularly slipped to meditate on the modest grandeur of Van Gogh’s chair (which then resided in the Tate). – to learn from a master how weightless color can be alchemized into the weight of a sacred substance and how even the space surrounding an object can be sanctified into something at the same time haptic and transcendent. As a student at the Croydon School of Art, the only institution that wanted to give him a chance, Scully decided to move away from figurative painting, which he had experimented with precocious élan – disassembling the body into a puzzle from damp Hues in paintings such as Untitled (Seated Figure), 1967. The infatuation with Piet Mondrian’s sparse spiritual grids and the urgency of Mark Rothko’s seductive mystical colors began to seep into his head.

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