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William Scharf. Photo: Christopher Rothko.

William Scharf (1927–2018)

William Scharf, an American painter who is often categorized as a late generation Abstract Expressionist, died on January 15 at the age of ninety. Known for producing paintings with abstract compositions incorporating biomorphic and geometric forms in vivid colors, the artist was influenced by Surrealism, the Color Field painters, and symbolism. Over the course of his six-decade career, Scharf had solo exhibitions at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC; the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College; and the High Museum in Atlanta. He also taught students at the Art Students League in New York for nearly thirty years.

“A master technician, Scharf created otherworldly realms at will,” Christopher Rothko, the son of Mark Rothko and a longtime friend of Scharf’s, said. “The poetry of his evocative titles reflected the sensuously-crafted, metaphoric language of his paintings. Remarkably, the suffused intensity of his work spoke both in his largest canvases, which could expand beyond fifteen feet wide, and with equal voice in his hundreds of nine-inch by four-inch painted paper panels.”

Born in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1927, Scharf was encouraged to study art by American artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. Scharf studied painting under him at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. During World War II, he served in the US Army, after which he returned to Pennsylvania to finish his studies at the academy and to take classes at the Barnes Foundation. He later traveled to Europe, where he enrolled at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. Scharf would work as a seaman on a tanker, travel to South America, and serve as a clown diver in an aquacade in Florida before moving to New York in the 1950s. He became a close friend of Mark Rothko and his wife, Mell, as well as other artists of the New York School. Scharf assisted Rothko with his mural project for the Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational place of worship and a site-specific artwork in Houston, Texas. He would later serve as an officer of the Rothko Foundation. 

A beloved educator, Scharf taught at a number of institutions including the School of Visual Arts in New York, the San Francisco Art Institute, Stanford University, the Pratt Institute, and the Arts Students League in New York, which he retired from in 2015. “Bill was a gentleman, a person of unassuming wisdom,” league instructor Bruce Dorfman said. “We exchanged art and friendship. He was a caring teacher and mentor to his students. Most importantly, William Scharf was a great and important artist, and he loved his wife Sally.” Former board member Victoria Hibbs added: “Bill loved teaching and respected each student’s style. . .He guided you toward your best work. He was gentle and sweet, but had a subtle, very wicked sense of humor.”

Scharf’s paintings can be found in the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; the Brooklyn Museum; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin; and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.

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