William Scott

Black Painting


William Scott 1913–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1227 × 1530 mm
frame: 1258 × 1559 × 57 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1994


During the 1950s many critics discussed William Scott's paintings in terms of form, but perhaps the most perceptive of them was his friend, the artist and critic Patrick Heron (1920-99). For Heron, writing in 1953, Scott was

an artist for whom literary associations count for little. The concrete reality of plastic colour and form is paramount. Extremely gifted, Scott's gifts are those of the mere painter. That is, his whole passion, his whole energy, is directed into the organization of the picture. For such an un-English phenomenon (the painter, pure and simple) life itself and all its mystery, all the tensions of consciousness, both intellectual and sensual, are focussed in the mere arrangement of form against form, of tonal colour against tonal colour (Patrick Heron, 'Review of William Scott: Exhibition of Works', New Statesman and Nation, 20 June 1953).

He concluded that within Scott's expressive formalism lurked 'something animal'. Heron's analysis was validated by Scott's comment made around 1953 that he was 'interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and erotic, disconcerting contours, the things of life' (quoted in Bowness 1964, p.9).

Heron's review was written in response to a number of abstract paintings exhibited at the Hanover Gallery, London, in the summer of 1953. By the time Black Painting was painted in 1958, Scott had returned to figuration, though of a highly ambiguous kind. Alan Bowness, in his catalogue for the Tate Gallery's retrospective in 1971, included the picture among a group of paintings made between 1958 and 1962 that he labelled 'Evocative Abstraction'. According to Bowness, these pictures 'evolved from still life and figure and landscape, but instead of particular associations they seem now to evoke some dream-like memory of ancient times and places' (Bowness 1971, p.52). In its conflation of the table top motif, the nude and landscape, Black Painting confirms Bowness's reading. The four vertical struts in the lower half may be table legs or two pairs of human legs; the large, dark rectangle above, out of which emerge variously coloured lozenges, may be a table top with vessels on it, or two bodies merged into one, or even a landscape, with its upper edge an horizon line.

Bowness also suggests a correspondence between the lively, impastoed surface of these paintings with 'graffiti and the textures of caves and walls' (Bowness 1971, p.52), specifically the dry stone walls of Somerset where Scott lived. In Black Painting there are areas, for example, the patch of blue in the upper right, which display a particularly granular impasto, rather like the surface of a roughly rendered wall. For Bowness these references signify an attempt to reach back to the primitive and to attach a sense of history to the paintings. He argues that the invocation of history was a reaction against the perceived absence of history in the American abstract painting Scott had encountered during a trip to North America in 1953. Scott's response to the work of such artists as Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97) was to immerse himself more deeply in a European tradition of abstracted figuration. In this context, comparisons can be made between Black Painting and Jean Dubuffet's (1901-85) sack-like figures and Nicolas de Staël's (1914-55) richly textured surfaces, as well as with the work of Roger Hilton (1918-64) and his former colleagues at the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court in Somerset, Peter Lanyon (1918-64) and Kenneth Armitage (b.1916).

Recently, Simon Morley has suggested that in tandem with the primitivism of Scott's paintings there is a highly sensual eroticism, particularly evident in the surface texture and ambiguity of such pictures as Black Painting. Describing the skin of these paintings as 'richly and lusciously coated surfaces that often seem voluptuously edible' (Tooby and Morley, p.25), he suggests that they operate not just as sensuous objects in themselves but as metaphors for a particular sort of corporeity. He proposes that the ambiguity of Scott's forms is comparable to the physical experience of two bodies sensuously merging, in as much as the identity of the painted forms is confused and conflated.

With most of his paintings, Scott made preliminary drawings and then began work on the canvas. As the painting developed new ideas and forms appeared which he incorporated into the final image. Thus a picture which may have started as a figure acquired landscape characteristics.
Black Painting was first exhibited at Kassel Documenta in 1959, a year after Scott's retrospective at the Venice Biennale, and was probably painted at his home in Hallatrow, Somerset. It was formerly owned by the sculptor F.E. McWilliam (1909-92).

Further reading:
Ronald Alley, William Scott, London 1963
Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, London 1964, reproduced p.94, pl.101
Alan Bowness, William Scott: Paintings Drawings and Gouaches 1938-71, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1972, reproduced p.52, cat. no.59
Michael Tooby and Simon Morley, William Scott: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 1998

Toby Treves
September 2001

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Display caption

William Scott used the traditional subject of a table-top still-life as the starting point for his paintings. The subject becomes deliberately ambiguous, however, as the composition could be seen to suggest a landscape or a figure just as much as a still life. His primary concern appears to be with the material of the paint itself. Scott saw himself as close to painting in France where, in the 1950s, there was emphasis on the materiality of the paint and the importance of the individual brushmarks. One movement of painting was called Tachisme, from tache meaning a stain or splash.

Gallery label, February 2010

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