Modern Masters exhibition features monumental paintings by two of today’s most accomplished painters, Sean Scully and John Walker. Promised gifts from Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr. on the occasion of VMFA’s 75th anniversary, these works affirm the unique capacity of paint to evoke the immateriality of light. Rounding out the exhibition are a suite of twelve photographs by Scully and four other recent paintings by Walker.

Sean Scully, born in Ireland in 1945, and John Walker, born in England in 1939, are both longtime residents of the United States and are among today’s most accomplished painters. While these artists do not usually exhibit together, their works are both featured here by the happy circumstance of promised gifts by Richmond collectors Pam and Bill Royall. These generous donors have offered Walker’s North Branch II and Sean Scully’s Cut Ground Red Blue to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on the occasion of the museum’s 75th anniversary. Each of these monumental works exemplifies the artists’ dedication to the nuances, traditions, and paradoxes of painting. And each suffuses abstract forms with references to the visible world of landscapes, man-made structures, and light.

Walker’s North Branch II, along with his three other recent paintings in the exhibition, reflects a love for the Maine coast. Over the past decade, he has drawn inspiration from a tidal cove at Seal Point near the Damariscotta River. Often created outdoors, his canvases respond to the landscape and its changing atmosphere by incorporating references to water, clouds, rainbows, trees, and earth. He even uses actual mud from the cove, and the rough texture provides a dynamic gestural presence offering a stark contrast to prismatic strokes of bright color that conjure the ethereal nature of light. Through such means, Walker’s paintings balance realistic landscapes with painterly abstraction, attending equally to space and surface.

Scully’s Cut Ground Red Blue builds on his interest in architecture. Scully was first inspired to paint geometric units of color during a 1972 trip to Morocco, where the stripes and bands of carpets and tents left a strong impression on him. After visiting Mexico in the early 1980s, he transformed his stripes into bricks of color. Over time, his stroke has softened, revealing underlayers of paint and infusing his minimalist, abstract images with a humanistic touch that expresses a wide range of emotions and ideas.

The exhibition also includes a suite of twelve photographs that Scully made in the Dominican Republic showing brightly painted shacks. Scully began taking photographs in 1979 but only began exhibiting them in the late 1990s. Although the photographs do not serve as models for his paintings, Scully’s focus on the doors and surrounding wood clapboards of dwellings parallel the compositions of his paintings to a remarkable degree and reflect some of the same interests in light, architecture, pattern, weathering, and the handmade.

Modern Masters: New Paintings by Sean Scully and John Walker is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and curated by John B. Ravenal, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. All works are either promised gifts or loans from Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr.

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