Born in Dublin in 1945, Scully grew up in South London. He studied at the Central School of Art, Croydon College of Art and Newcastle University before settling in New York in 1975. Among his early abstract works were his so-called ‘grid’ paintings, composed of intersecting multicoloured lines. During this period, Scully took a stand against the prevailing trends of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Influenced by artists such as Bridget Riley and Mark Rothko, he believed that abstraction had become divorced from feeling, and vowed to reunite the two.
Stripes were central to Scully’s visual language from the beginning, inspired in part by his travels in Morocco during the 1960s. During the 1980s, this simple, universal structure became a vehicle for rich, expressive brushwork, full of textural sensation and chromatic depth. Important works from this period included the monumental Backs and Fronts (1981) — a major turning point in his oeuvre — and Heart of Darkness (1982, Art Institute of Chicago). Scully also began his long-running series of Catherine paintings, dedicated to his second wife Catherine Lee.
Among Scully’s best-known works are his ‘inset’ paintings, begun in 1988. These works feature inlaid canvas panels, which confront the viewer like paintings within paintings. A decade later, Scully began his Wall of Light paintings, inspired by the ancient Mayan architecture he observed on trips to Mexico during the 1980s. While recovering from a period of illness in the 2010s, Scully immersed himself in his Landline series, dispensing with vertical stripes and embracing horizontal lines. These works were showcased in his exhibition Land Sea during the 2015 Venice Biennale.
With studios in New York, London, Germany and Aix-en-Provence, Scully is an international artist. He has exhibited across the world, and was the first Western artist to have a career-length retrospective in China.
In 2019, he was the subject of the acclaimed documentary film Unstoppable: Sean Scully & the Art of Everything, followed by a major touring retrospective organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art between 2021 and 2022. His most expensive paintings have achieved prices in excess of £1,500,000 at auction.