Jack the Wolf: A Great Abstract Painter’s Children’s Story

So far as I am aware, Sean Scully is the first great abstract painter to write a children’s story. And now he has a collaboration, Oisin Scully, who is his fourteen year old son. Sean always has a singular ability to be unpredictable. After a successful early London career as a distinguished minimalist, he emigrated to New York and invented a radically new form of abstraction. Then, after several decades of painting abstractly, he also made sculptures. And more recently he has done figurative paintings of his family, Oisian and his wife Liliane Tomasko, who is a marvelous abstract painter. The danger of being a successful painter is that the audience will just want more of what you already do. Sean has been always keen to escape that danger.

All those developments I have followed, but I never expected or imagined anything like Jack the Wolf. In order to explain my response to this magical book, I need to tell a little bit about myself. You can learn something about a writer by learning what artwork they first remember. Later on, you become armored against unfamiliar novel experiences, but early on you are vulnerable, in a way that can inspire lasting creativity.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, my loving parents took me to musical theaters. And so I adore some 1950s American works, which more sophisticated people scorn. I’m not sure whether I saw Mary Martin’s Peter Pan in the theater, or only later when it appeared on television. At any rate, what I recall vividly is just one short scene. Peter Pan, left in charge of the children, eggs them on to have happy thoughts if they too want to fly, as she does. The boy tries and fails. ’Think happier thoughts ‘Peter Pan says to him. The boy obeys her and then discovers that he too can fly. Out the window he goes! Soon the other kids follow. It’s almost fatally easy to explain my response to Peter Pan. A young boy is excited about seeing people pretending to fly! Nothing surprising in that. But I want rather to hold on to my childhood sense of wonder, for it’s there that I will find the key to Jack the Wolf.

Jack the Wolf, like all good children’s stories, is a straightforward narrative which is easy to retell. And so, no plot spoilers here. Jack, who is a friendly wolf, but a little sad, likes to come out of his cave at night, go into town and secretly eat chocolate. But not rabbits. And so he makes friends with Rebecca, a bunny who explains to him that he’s getting all of the town children in trouble. These parents think that their children are secretly eating the chocolate. When Rebecca and Jack have this conversation, we learn that no one has every asked about Jack’s welfare before. And so he is ready to listen to Rebecca, who tells him how to win over the town. I won’t tell how Jack does that- you really do need to read this beautiful book. The houses, it’s worth adding, have decorations very much in the Scully-style of painting. What I will say is that at the end the children and their parents are, as the book says, pleased “as punch to be united once again in love and trust.” Jack has found understanding, and so he and Rebecca are friends for life. And he has made all the people in the town happy.

Everyone with any bookish knowledge of psychoanalysis knows about Sigmund Freud’s most famous patient, the Wolf Man. A Russian aristocrat, his real name was Sergei Pankejeff (1886-1979). As a child, he was greatly disturbed by a dream in which six or seven wolves with long tails sit on a tree outside his bedroom. Needless to say, Freud’s interpretation of this dream, and his oddly unsuccessful therapy for the Wolf Man, has been much discussed and criticized. What matters for me here is the dramatic contrast to my childhood fantasy and the Sean-Oisin story. The Wolf Man had a long, singularly difficult life, in which in old age he supported himself partly by selling images of his disturbing dream to Freudian therapists. But he never overcame the fears inspired by his dream. By contrast, my memory of Peter Pan and the story presented in Jack the Wolf are fantasies with happy consequences.

I know that a child cannot fly. And Sean and Oisin are surely aware that wolves and rabbits cannot be true buddies. And yet, the potential consequences of my memory of Peter Pan and of their idyllic fantasy of an ideal harmonious world are powerful. From this recollection, I learned that an art critic must be prepared to jump, trusting his ability to embrace shocking new experiences. For success, you have to have unjustified faith in immediate experience. Otherwise, you should stick to art history. Jack the Wolf teaches a more complex lesson. Sean Scully is an important painter because he teaches us to see the urban world aesthetically. We learn, so I discovered in the 1980s, to see how the rhythms of his abstractions mirrored the structures of the city. Of course, this is just a fantasy, for Sean is merely a painter, not an urban planner. But it is a powerful fantasy if you can accept its terms, and see the Scullyesque city rhythms. I can. The Wolf Man’s problem, by contrast, was that he was caught in a literal, all too anxious response to his dream-fantasy.

Thanks to Jack the Wolf we learn that love can trump anxiety. At any rate, that is how I choose to read the story. A creative person, so my teacher Richard Wollheim once wrote, is someone who makes others creative. That is what Sean and Oisin Scully have done for all of us. Fantasy is powerful. But it can be dangerous when, as with the Wolf Man, it goes wrong. By the way, Oisin is named after the greatest warrior poet of Irish mythology. The right name for the co-author of Jack the Wolf.


On Liliane Tomasko, see my


On Sean Scully, my

Sean Scully’s Abstract Paintings Have Stories to Tell  

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.