New York

William Scott, Poem for a Jug, No. 21, 1980, oil on canvas, 32 x 36".

William Scott, Poem for a Jug, No. 21, 1980, oil on canvas, 32 x 36".

William Scott

McCaffrey Fine Art | 23 East 67th Street

William Scott, Poem for a Jug, No. 21, 1980, oil on canvas, 32 x 36".

To celebrate the centennial of William Scott’s birth, McCaffrey Fine Art mounted a survey of twenty simply delineated, rather poignant later still lifes dating from between 1976 and 1986. The disarming expressiveness of these oddly meek works—showing an outlined pear, a flat white cup, most measuring roughly twenty by twenty inches, some even smaller—stands in vivid contrast to the imposing role in British painting that Scott played in the 1950s. Indeed, by the time these pieces were made, interest in his work had markedly declined, largely because of the era’s tidal drift away from painterly virtues toward Conceptual showboating. Scott fell victim to this rising mode of ironic disappreciation, as did, it must be noted, the broad front of the once celebrated British painters among whom he was all but standard-bearer. True, Ben Nicholson, the painter with whom Scott most shares deeply critical points of stylistic development, maintains an estimable rank. And Francis Bacon’s reputation has grown vastly. But Lucian Freud was only then beginning to be known, more for his tight and mannered quasi-Surrealism—zebras through windows—than for the ambitious signature studio nudes that today guarantee his certain, if notorious, stature.Today, Graham Sutherland’s name inspires little more than a lingering curiosity, largely owing to the rumpus occasioned by his spiky portraits of Somerset Maugham and of Her Majesty the Queen. But lesser lights, fine painters such as Keith Vaughan, Victor Pasmore, and Patrick Heron, are all but forgotten or, conversely, are, like Scott, just on the cusp of being rediscovered, though Scott enjoys a considerable head start.

In the US, Scott’s dealer was Martha Jackson; this prestigious professional affiliation that led to close ties with Mark Rothko, whose work had a profound influence on him—especially with regard to the luminous, atmospheric, and roseate color of Scott’s best work from the ’50s. The colored grounds of those ambitious paintings suggest either the wall from which household utensils depend or the picture plane as the table upon which such still-life material is placed, a reminder of the loose Cubist grid from which these compositions ultimately derive (and a harbinger of the flatbed plane).

Imagine a loose grid upon which the shapes of simple domestic referents—some, such as cups, reduced to no more than colored rectangles—constitute the composition. Such a fulsome ’50s “big picture” mode is here forsworn in favor of hermit-like simplicity; the disavowal of Rothko-like visual hedonism becomes the order of the day. Scott’s late, chastened images—one could choose at random, so equal is one image to another—no longer function within the machinery of an AbEx-inspired mode but are presented as single icons, virtually isolated and touchingly impoverished: a group of pears on a blue or grayish ground, overturned mushrooms on a white plate.

Both Nicholson and Scott delighted in the rocky, harsh beauty of Channel coastal villages—Nicholson in Saint Ives, Cornwall, UK; Scott in Pont-Aven, Brittany, France—where they imaginatively relived, in their respective famous artists’ colonies, the history of Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and the nabis’ discovery of Symbolist color abstraction. Folkloric referentiality is particularly felt in the humble still-life material that inspired Scott’s painting over the decades: tin- and blacksmiths’ pots and pans, for instance, and local ceramics. Such plain, homespun items, along with peasant fare—a handful of green beans, a fish or two—provided the elemental subjects for Scott’s paintings. Toward the end (as this show makes clear), the simply contoured outlines of his preferred imagery grew more emphatic; at times the paintings were even comically tinged, as when, for example, the poor fish on the plate seem to be laughing.

The simple English still life as transformed by Scott (and Nicholson) was ever alert to the shadow cast by the naïf (for want of a better word) Saint Ives painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942), an English Albert Pinkham Ryder, as it were. Wallis’s small scale and his dank subject matter—you could almost smell the fish—set not only a dark formal example but, in a manner of speaking, a moral tone as well. In Scott’s small late paintings—the abject fish, a few green beans, a pear or two, a pan, a plate, a cup—all is deglamorized, reduced to an almost late Guston–like ideogram for cup, ladle, trivet, bottle. Then, for the last three years of Scott’s life, there was really nothing, as this once famous, but ever affecting, painter succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, dying in 1989.

Robert Pincus-Witten