William Scott (1913-1989), whose paintings are the subject of an immensely appealing exhibition at Denise Bibro Fine Art in Chelsea, is not an artist easily categorized. Born in Scotland of Irish and Scottish parents, he received his training at the Belfast College of Art in Northern Ireland and the Royal Academy in London, yet it was in France in the 1930’s that he came of age as a painter. In 1938, he moved to Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he met Maurice Denis and Emile Bernard and, with his wife, Mary (a painter and sculptor), helped organize the Pont-Aven School of Painting.
Owing to this French connection, Scott’s painting remained aloof from the kind of “literary” imagery that is often associated with modern British art. He said of his own work, “I picked up from the tradition of painting in France that I felt most kinship with-the still-life tradition of Chardin and Braque, leading to a certain kind of abstraction which comes directly from that tradition.” It was to the not entirely separable interests of still-life and abstraction that he devoted his long and distinguished career.
After 1953, when he first visited New York, the influence of the Abstract Expressionists on Scott’s painting is sometimes discernible as well. Scott is said to have been the first British artist to meet Pollock, Rothko, Kline, de Kooning and other luminaries of the New York School, and their influence certainly makes itself felt-especially Kline’s-in the black, white and gray still-life painting, Composition III (1954), in the current show.
Elsewhere in Scott’s work, however, it’s less the facture or the palette of Abstract Expressionism that’s evident than the physical scale of New York School painting. For example, I very much doubt that a work like White Painting (1963), measuring 66 by 78 inches, would have been attempted if not for the outsize scale of the Abstract Expressionists. In every other respect, White Painting , with its composition of irregular white rectangles and delicate blue lines occupying a buff-colored canvas, is entirely original, and in my view it’s one of the finest abstract paintings of the period. White Painting is composed entirely of subtle shifts of light unbroken by shade, which is all the more remarkable since many of Scott’s still-life paintings are notable for their emphatic black forms.
In this respect, I am reminded of something Matisse said, in a 1947 interview, about what he called “the problem of black.” He recalled that Pissarro, in speaking of Manet, boldly asserted that “Manet is stronger than us all, he made light with black ” (emphasis added). Transforming black into a kind of pictorial light was very much Scott’s practice as well, not only in a beautifully legible picture like Still Life with Black Theme (1973), but in the more densely painted black-on-black Still Life of 1957.
This is not to suggest that Scott shied away from brilliant color. In the current show, both the dazzling still-life called Blue Yellow and Brown (1957) and the Orchard of Pears 14 (1976-1977), with its luminous greens, are the work of a master colorist. He had no gift for self-promotion, however. British understatement remained his style, both in conversation and in his painting, and this cost him something in a period when the limelight was dominated by swollen egos and pop-art shenanigans on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is, in any case, one of the curiosities of William Scott’s career that he was far better known, both in this country and abroad, in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s than he is today. In New York, the Martha Jackson Gallery, then a leading dealership in the international avant-garde, devoted seven solo exhibitions to Scott’s work between 1954 and 1979. In that period, too, he was given retrospective exhibitions at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, Germany, and the Tate Gallery in London. He was also represented in the Venice Biennale and São Paulo Bienal.
The current New York exhibition- William Scott: Works from the Scott Collection, 1950’s-1970’s -is an excellent introduction to the artist’s work, and remains on view at Denise Bibro Fine Art, 529 West 20th Street, through June 5.