Permutations Ochre is among a group of paintings William Scott made after 1965 in which he reworked the familiar forms of pots, pans and cups that had been a part of his visual vocabulary since the late 1940s. Here the rounded square forms may be read as vessels and the other shape as a pan, with the vertical white arm as its handle. In such early paintings as The Frying Pan 1946 (Arts Council Collection) he had depicted these objects in a relatively naturalistic way within a spatially stable setting. Only during the 1950s, as he vacillated between periods of figuration and abstraction, were they gradually distilled into the simplified signs seen in Permutations Ochre. At the same time the arrangement of pictorial space became more complex.
By the late 1950s Scott had dispensed with shadow and was deliberately distorting the relative scale of the objects within his pictures to undermine the illusion of a coherent perspectival recession. Consequently the forms in his paintings appeared to be caught in a very shallow space, and to be stacked up on top on one another. This sense of confined space was heightened by the large number of objects that Scott crammed into his paintings. In Ochre Still Life 1958 (Tate, T00505), for example, there are so many vessels jostling one another to squeeze into the picture that they almost cover its entire surface. Around 1960, however, as Scott began to simplify his compositions, he greatly reduced the number of objects in his paintings. Thus in Ochre Permutations there are only five, whereas in Ochre Still Life there are over twenty.
As he cleared these objects away, the ground re-emerged as an important element. Within a few years of this development, Scott also began to change the surface texture of his paintings. During most of the 1950s, he had knifed paint onto the canvas, creating a rich impasto that gave the surface an almost sculptural quality. Around 1965, however, he abandoned this technique and began applying thin coats of paint by brush. As a result, the surface texture became much more even and flat and began to resemble the delicate, luminous work of his friend, the American artist Mark Rothko (1903-70). In Permutations Ochre the ground is so flat that without the beige band along the lower edge it would be impossible to anchor it spatially. One consequence of this flat ground is that the forms seem to float above it.
In recent years, Scott's paintings have often been discussed in terms of their sexual content. While this is clearly relevant to some of his early still lifes and to his figure paintings, its seems less so in the late still lifes, where such allusions are less apparent.
Permutations Ochre was first exhibited at Gimpel Fils, London, in 1978, and was probably painted at Scott's home in Hallatrow, Somerset.
Ronald Alley, William Scott, London 1963
Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, London 1964
Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings Drawings and Gouaches 1938-71, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1972
Michael Tooby and Simon Morley, William Scott: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 1998