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.
Tell me about the unusual shapes in “Forme bleue sur fond rouge,” a 1950 oil by Serge Poliakoff, the postwar abstract painter.
When I was a young kid at art school, I loved the sensual geometry of Poliakoff, which, of course, is inherent in my own work. I was happy to get that painting, which is influential. It’s a painting where somebody’s fumbling, where he’s coming out of Cubism, which is profound. And the scale of this work is interesting because it’s not heroic at all. It’s intimate European; it’s not very challenging to us. It looks a little nostalgic and a little antique.
What about this 1918 Max Beckmann drypoint etching, “The Yawners”?
I absolutely adore his depth and the seriousness of his work, and he used black in everything. My work is very serious, and I use a lot of black too. I’m a political person and that’s a picture of sleeping people. That’s a warning, because fascism is always just around the corner. It’s basically saying, “This is why Hitler rose to power, because the people were dozing.” One always has to be vigilant against the hard right. One has to be vigilant against the hard left, too. It’s very important to be against extremism.
The Inness could have been painted around here.
You can see in that painting the future of transcendental American abstraction. There’s a minimal structure in there, and it’s already looking like a Rothko. And all the fuzzy edges are related to the vegetation around the Hudson and the estuary up the road, where the reeds make the same edges. I bought that for my house because I wanted a picture of where I was living.
You unveiled the Eleuthera paintings of your son at Oisín’s 8th birthday party. What did he think?
His reaction? Very casual. He knows his dad is a famous artist, and it wasn’t more than a week ago that we were all dancing with Bono. So he’s kind of used to it.