Backs and Fronts: The painting that changed the course of art

Among those who were present to hear the commotion caused when Backs and Fronts was first exhibited in New York’s PS1 art centre (part of the Museum of Modern Art) in 1982, was the art historian and writer Robert Morgan, who recently reminisced on the impact that the work made at the time. “This painting took the exhibition by storm. Nothing like it had been done before: 11 panels moving horizontally across an open field, an infinity of coloured stripes, optically moving up, down, and sideways as if they were the notations for a musical score.” Morgan’s equation of the work’s vocabulary with the swell and grammar of musical composition is perfectly in tune with the very inception of the painting, which began life as a smaller, more intimate and contained response to Pablo Picasso’s famous 1921 Cubist portrait Three Musicians.

“I thought it would be better to have four musicians,” Scully told me, recalling how he set out, initially, to create a relatively modest quartet of panels riffing off the rhythms of Picasso’s famous trio. Scully had been resident in New York for five years, an aspiring young artist patiently paying his dues, after graduating from university in England in 1972. “I managed to make the painting by, in a sense, returning to Europe, because Picasso is European and I always loved his geometric figures, which were close to abstraction but never crossed the line. As it went on, I somehow got the courage to start expanding the work. And then I started expanding it stylistically until, by the end, it was thunderous.”

Turning point

Also witness to the thunderclap of Backs and Fronts was the US art historian and philosopher David Carrier, who regards the arrival of the painting not only as pivotal to the unfolding story of contemporary art, but a turning point too in his own development as a thinker and writer. “Soon after it was shown,” Carrier has written, “everything changed for [Scully]. Usually an art historian has only a bookish experience of the events he or she describes. But I know this story by acquaintance, because I was there. I remember as if yesterday, walking into PS 1. At that time, Scully didn’t have a dealer; nor was he much known in New York. Immediately his art inspired me, I met him and when I sought 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 little ones before it made that ultimate leap possible. As a teenager apprenticing with a printer in London (where his family had moved from his native Dublin when he was a toddler), Scully routinely found himself slipping off to meditate on the humble grandeur of Van Gogh’s Chair (which then resided in the Tate) – learning from a master how weightless colour can be alchemised into the heft of sacred substance, and how even the space surrounding an object can be sanctified into something at once tactile and transcendent. Subsequently, as a student at Croydon School of Art, the only institution that was willing to give him a chance, Scully made the decision to step away from painting figuratively, with which he had experimented with precocious panache – breaking the body down into a jigsaw of humid hues in paintings such as Untitled (Seated Figure), 1967. Infatuations with the spare spiritual grids of Piet Mondrian and the poignancy of Mark Rothko’s alluring swathes of mysticised colour began percolating in his mind.