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To Understand It Is to Own It: Sean Scully on Collecting


The artist Sean Scully standing between a Serge Poliakoff painting and a Walker Evans photograph in his studio in Tappan, N.Y.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

TAPPAN, N.Y. — The walls of Sean Scully’s art studio in this quiet hamlet are lined with paintings for which he is famous — bars and blocks in muscular, vibrating hues — and others for which he is not: portraits of his son Oisín, now 8, at play on a beach in Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

But the walls leading to his inner sanctum are another thing entirely, hung with works by other artists that Mr. Scully says he simply likes to “feed off”: a 1935 Walker Evans photograph of a New Orleans barber shop that reminds him of his deceased father, a barber in Dublin and then London; “All you need is love, love, love,” a 2009 Damien Hirst butterfly-heart silk-screen print inscribed with a lewd dedication; and “Early Morning, Montclair, New Jersey,” an 1892 George Inness landscape reminiscent of the Rockland County terrain where Mr. Scully lives with his wife, the Swiss painter Liliane Tomasko.

“I’m not trying to make a collection. It’s just making itself,” he said. “I’m quite a social person, quite a communicator, and I like to have the work of other people around. And occasionally I want to buy something that I want to look at for a long time.”

Mr. Scully, of course, is no stranger to collectors. His own works, in the hands of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Tate in London and the philanthropist Eli Broad, climb upward from the mid six figures. Speaking by phone in a follow-up interview from a farm in Bavaria, where he was preparing for a solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in September 2018, he talked about a few of his favorite purchases. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Do you remember your first serious acquisition?

A couple of crosshatched prints by Sol LeWitt. They were extremely delicate and profoundly refined. It was in ’74, and I was 29 and already showing my work in London and Los Angeles. I would have bought other things, too, if I could have afforded them. I love de Kooning, but they’re $30 million I don’t have, and I’m pretty sure I never will. But it doesn’t break my heart. If you understand something, you own it. You don’t have to own its body.

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