William Scott 1913 - 1989


The Artist

Private Collection, USA

Private Collection, UK


The decade preceding the creation of Untitled, 1961, proved to be an interesting and important period in terms of Scott’s artistic development. Commentators on his work have recognised two significant phases during the fifties in which Scott developed a definite ‘abstract’ language. The first phase dates roughly from 1952-1954 and the origins of the second phase can be traced back to 1959, just two years before Scott created this work.

Whilst Scott did not reject this ‘language’ in the interceding years, a wealth of influences and considerations came in to play; ancient and primitive art, the artist’s contact with American Abstraction Expressionism on a trip to the United States in 1953 and subsequently a return to the European tradition of the still life, and a more representational style enriched by what he had seen. This meant that Scott’s paintings dating from 1954 to 1959 present a varied vocabulary of artistic concerns. One might surmise that the fifties represent a period of exploration which begins to find a coherent voice in the early sixties with works like Untitled 1961.

Speaking in 1955, Scott outlines his artistic concerns as follows,

‘I longed for the freedom of the object or perhaps it was now a desire to divide the spaces of my canvas as I felt and not merely as I knew- the insistence of the object and their symbolic meaning, wherever I might place them within the picture plane, interfered with my new interest. My problem was to reduce the immediacy of the individual and to make a synthesis of ‘objects and space’ so that the new conception would be the expression of one thing and not any longer a collection of loosely related objects.

Sometimes the object disappears and takes on a new meaning. It is during this moment of transition that when I feel I realize most completely my intentions. Apart from the subject, which I can do nothing about, what interests me in the beginning of a picture is the division of spaces and forms; these must be made to move and be animated like living matter. I have a strong preference for primitive and elementary forms and I should like to combine a sensual eroticism with a starkness which will be instinctive and uncontrived.’ (The New Decade Exhibition, edited by A.C. Ritchie, Museum of Modern Art, 1955, repro. Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, Lund Humphries and Co, London, 1964, p20)

The physicality of a picture becomes paramount in Scott’s work from the sixties and one of the most significant formal developments during the fifties and into the sixties is the textured and varied treatment of the picture’s surface. As Scott explains, ‘The actual touch and the way I put paint on canvas matters very much, I am extremely interested in textural qualities - the thick paint, the thin paint, the scratched lines, the almost careful-careless way in which a picture’s painted…I don’t like a picture painted with a too slick, too efficient technique- painting with too much know how.’ (Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, Lund Humphries and Co, London, 1964, p. 11)

As Scott’s pictorial language becomes simpler, formal considerations come very much into play. Surfaces tend to become more voluptuous, encapsulating the, ‘…sensual eroticism…’ that Scott desired. Paint is applied in this picture in an encrusted impasto, which is particularly visible around the outline of the forms, imbuing them with an irregular and more organic quality ‘as if Scott had breathed into them…’ (Ronald Alley, William Scott, Methuen, London, 1963, p.

In Untitled, 1961, Scott plays artfully with scale. The perspective of this work has been tipped forward so that it becomes a flattened view, forms appear to have been zoomed in on and the canvas feels as if it has been cropped at the edges. One can no longer read this composition literally, the darkest form which Scott allows to dominate the picture plane suggests that it might represent many things but confirms nothing. The overall effect of this ‘abstract’ language is that the work is read intuitively. One reacts to its formal values; the contrasting tonal areas, the irregular shapes and thickly applied paint as opposed to the picture’s subject.

The act of painting and the painting itself becomes a matter of feeling tempered by the artist’s desire for balance and harmony. ‘I find beauty in plainness, in a conception which is precise….A simple idea which to the observer in its intensity must inevitably shock and leave a concrete image in the mind.’ (Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, Lund Humphries and Co, London, 1964, p11)