Abstract Critical

William Scott

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

'William Scott: Divided Figure, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings' Photo: Larissa Alves

‘William Scott: Divided Figure, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings’ Photo: Larissa Alves

The time has come – we are told – to reassess William Scott’s legacy. The call has come from a formidably executed onslaught led by the estate and is timed to coincide with the centenary of the artist’s birth. With the publication of a four-volume catalogue raisonée, a touring retrospective, a new Tate catalogue, a show at Karsten Schubert and a well pulled-together show at the Jerwood Hastings, the opportunities for reassessment certainly abound. With a review of the retrospective appearing elsewhere on this site the focus here will be primarily on the nudes on show at the Jerwood and in passing the drawings on display at Karsten Schubert.

The Jerwood show concentrates on Scott’s treatment of the nude across two periods in the 1950s (1954 and 1956) – though stretches forwards to include a few works from the late 1960s and early 70s. The 1950s are  notable as a period in which several artists were engaged in programmes which traversed the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. Scott’s own moves between still lifes, nudes and abstraction, therefore, took their place alongside De Kooning’s women, De Staël’s return to figuration and the continuing interpenetration of still life, landscape and abstraction in the work of Ben Nicholson.

These 1950s manoeuvres seem differentiated from preceding ‘returns’ to figuration by their essentially affirmative relation to abstraction. Rather than the ideologically driven retreats of Piper or Hélion in the late 1930s, the aforementioned 1950s artists continued to use abstraction and figuration as parallel modes in which the primacy of the formal remained an established fact – the structural principles of their abstract work shining through to their representational modes and (often) vice versa. It seems notable that the return to figuration by De Kooning, Nicholson, De Staël and Scott was not driven by financial necessity, coinciding as it did with the increasing commercial success of their abstract work. Rather than a concession to the market or an ideological retreat, therefore, the transgression of the abstract/figurative divide at this time seems to denote the triumph of a formal interest above and beyond the ideological purity of, for example, Nicholson’s 1930s work, or the legacy of Abstract Expressionism.

The press (fed, as is the current trend, by the press release) have seized upon a quote by Scott which seems to undo this formal resolve, increasing the mythological aura of his work and the centrality of the nude to his wider project: “I am an abstract painter in the sense that I abstract, I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and erotic, disconcerting contours, the things of life’. As useful as such a quote is to those wishing to underline the importance of the Jerwood show whilst simultaneously asserting a libidinous aspect to a career that is often accused of gentility, it is an at best partial account of Scott’s thoughts at the time. Elsewhere we see him defining his 1950s progression in reference to his pursuit of a ‘freedom from the object… a desire to divide the spaces of my canvas as I felt and not merely as I knew’ and lamenting that the ‘insistence of the objects and their symbolic function wherever I may place them in the picture plane interfered with my new interest. My problem was to reduce the immediacy of the individual object and to make a synthesis of ‘objects and space’ so that the new conception would be the expression of one thing’.

Red Figure, 1954, oil on canvas, © 2013 the Estate of William Scott

Red Figure, 1954, oil on canvas, © 2013 the Estate of William Scott

Between the poles of these statements, and within the realm of Scott’s wider ambitions, the nudes hold what is, at best, a problematic position. Far from anonymous forms given to spatial integration they provide a dominating format and clearly defined object. Across the 1950s work on display at Jerwood we sense Scott toying with a variety of means by which to counteract this dominance. In some paintings, such as Reclining Red Nude, or Reclining Nude, both 1956, he deconstructs the nude’s form into a series of gently modulated interior planes – creating the sense of an aerially viewed landscape within the confines of the body. In others, as in Red Figure 1954 – or a number of the drawings on display at Karsten Schubert – Scott constructs a structural focus by anchoring the models’ limbs to the edges of the picture and flattening her body against the picture plane. In so doing, he ends up with a kind of all-over flatness which relates to his abstract works of the period (which Patrick Heron described as ‘melting Mondrians’). Representationally this often reduces the portrayed body to something resembling a rotisserie chicken.

The interjection of features from his abstract and landscape paintings brings to mind something of Ben Nicholson’s work of the time, in which the still life paintings became infused with elements of landscapes, and the landscape paintings are inflected by the planar interplays of the abstracts. As Nicholson put it, ‘my ‘still life’ paintings are closely identified with landscape, more closely than are my landscapes which relate perhaps more to my ‘still life’’. Scott summed up a similar sentiment when he stated that, ‘it seems I paint the same subject whether it be still life, figure or landscape’. Nicholson’s interest in the formal and structural possibilities afforded by the interpenetration of different genres was expressed in the playful interpenetration of distant planes that defines his work of the period. In contrast, in Scott’s work there is a tendency to isolate the nude form within its unmistakable (and here largely uncaptivating) contours. This, and the sparse tonal and chromatic treatment, tend to limit his play to very specific explorations within the interior planes of the nude or the framing of the body.

Reclining Red Nude, 1956, oil on canvas, © 2013 the Estate of William Scott

Reclining Red Nude, 1956, oil on canvas, © 2013 the Estate of William Scott

It is in this respect that we sense the limitations of the Jerwood exhibition’s premise. For, whilst it remains marketable to talk of two periods in which Scott intensely addressed the nude it is perhaps more honest to suggest that the limitations of the format led him away again. It seems clear that the format of the nude fought against the desire for an all-over focus that was aimed for in the abstract works and the complex balancing of objects across the canvas that was attained in many of the still-lifes of the period. Even where a degree of complexity is added therefore – as in the interior planar folds of Reclining Red Nude – Scott’s tendency to divide his canvasses into highly distinct areas (foreground /nude / background) means that our attention is largely limited to the central passage – and here most particularly to the belly i. This marks out a clear tension with his suggested commitment to the unity of ‘objects and space’.

William Scott, Nude, 1956 (c) The Estate of William Scott. Photo: Larissa Alves

William Scott, Nude, 1956 (c) The Estate of William Scott. Photo: Larissa Alves

One respect in which such divisions are overcome, however, relates loosely to an observation Alan Gouk made regarding gravity in his review of last year’s Nicholson || Mondrian show at the Courtauld. For what impresses about the best of Scott’s nudes is a notion of displaced gravity. This is most forcefully present in Nude 1956. Here the ovoid focus of the nudes’ hips, just above the centre of the composition, seems at once oblique to and flat upon the ambiguous tilt of the bed. The combination of the hips’ fixing form, the ambiguous tilts of the bed and body and the light modulation of tone, create competing gravitational forces which are seemingly both internal to the pictorial space (pulling towards the bottom of the canvas) and issuing from it (projecting outwards – perpendicular from the wall – to pull backwards towards an indefinite point behind the picture plane). This sense of displaced gravity – at once tied to the represented object and to the spatial assertions of the picture; vertical and broadly recessional – is strengthened by the non-diminishing cell-like forms, which show through from an underlayer in the surface of the bed beneath the nude, and read as a strange grid like pattern or as aerially viewed fields.

Whilst marginally present in a number of the nudes of this show, this sense of gravitational ambiguity is at its strongest in this work and provides perhaps the most compelling moment in the exhibition. What excites about it is that it is one of the very few moments in which Scott unsettled the clarity of his objects and expanded what Patrick Heron described as the ‘sensation of space and depth in a painted flatness’ across the whole of the canvas. The rarity of this moment and the limited amount of excitement Scott derived from the tension between painted flatness and  ‘figuration of space’ across the majority of the works in the exhibition, underlined my overall disappointment with the exhibition.

[Still Life], 1957

William Scott, Still Life, 1957 © 2013 The Estate of William Scott

It is perhaps in recognition of this fact that the Jerwood have included a 1957 still life painting amongst the nudes – for it would seem that it is in the still lifes of this period that Scott succeeded in instigating a marginally more complex sense of spatial tension. It is a thoroughly intriguing, if tantalisingly unresolved, painting. There is a clear influence of Tàpies in the rather un-Scott like crudeness of the orange marks which form a flat rubric or screen across the picture plane. [2] These orange marks sit flat on the largely dark surface, at times providing a stylistically disjointed outline to the depiction of a pot or pan beneath, at times traversing two such objects as though they were the outline of a window which sat across the picture plane and at others forming a crude but ghostly linear contour which sits flat upon the ground. Combining these marks with a series of objects which escape the orange contours, a divided sense of light across the canvas and what seem like occasional reflections on the black expanses of the upturned table top, the painting establishes an indeterminate play between its surface, the perplexing notations and the disjointed assertions of the pictorial space.

Still Life 1957,  is, I sense – relying heavily upon reproductions – a prelude to Scott’s most interesting period of still life and abstract works (from the late 1950s and early 60s), in which the surface becomes increasingly invoked alongside the mysteries of spatial recession and for a while overwhelms the clarity of style and definition with a compelling sense of spatial ambiguity. Yet even here we sense Scott’s refusal to allow his line any degree of looseness or lyrical uncertainty holding him back from full ranging excitement. For where Nicholson, Braque or even Gorky could open up and interrelate distinct planes through a playful roaming line, Scott’s austere, controlled contours (even where deliberately crude) tend to pull towards the isolation of distinct units. If Still Life, 1957, intrigues, therefore, it does not gel – the isolation and disjunction of each object from the other never quite achieving unity or resolution.

William Scott, A Girl Surveyed XI – Drawings in Blue, 1970-71 © 2013 The Estate of William Scott

William Scott, A Girl Surveyed XI – Drawings in Blue, 1970-71 © 2013 The Estate of William Scott

It remains, however, far preferable to the weakness of the 1970s work on display, where the sense of light and gentle spatial play present even in the nudes gives way to a Mimmo Palidinoesque world of linear design, fused with a kind of faux Surrealist awkwardness. In isolating the genteel illustrative approach, until now kept in balance by competing assertions, these late paintings lay bare an abiding weakness in Scott’s oeuvre, in a manner that Norbert Lynton may have damned with faint praise when he said that, ‘by keeping them… a little painterly he is able to bring a broad sensation of space and light into paintings that in other hands would have been mere large-scale graphic design’.

[Figure with Still Life], 1973, oil on canvas © 2013 the Estate of William Scott

[Figure with Still Life], 1973, oil on canvas © 2013 the Estate of William Scott

So, what then of reassessments. The Jerwood exhibition affords a window on a fertile period in Scott’s career. Overall, however, it would seem to be defined more by absence than connection. If the excitement of the competing gravitational forces at times imbues these paintings with an intriguing lure, more often a reliance upon clear contour and unambiguously divided sections limits the spatial intricacy and all-over resolution of the works. Whilst this would seem to be overcome somewhat in the still-life works of the late 1950s, the overwhelming austerity of Scott’s tonal (rather than chromatic) approach and his inability to free line from contour continues to place his exploration of space within limited yet strangely unresolved confines. If the frequent accusations of gentility, therefore, seem a little unfair for an artist who looked far and wide in his range of influence, it does seem reasonable to suggest that Scott’s paintings are defined more by their limitations than their fluency.

William Scott: Divided Figure is on at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings until the 10th of July. William Scott: 1950s Nude Drawings is on at Kartsen Schubert until the 12th of July.

[1] A measure of the extent to which this is a deficiency of Scott’s, rather than the nude format, could be argued with a look to the tension Velasquez manages to create across the surface of the Rokeby Venus.

[2] Tàpies showed with Scott’s New York gallery throughout the 1950s and is one of a number of quite diverse artists whose influence is detectable on Scott throughout these years.

  1. Mary Romer Greenfield said…

    I too have just visited the W. Scott exhibition at Jerwood in Hastings and would agree entirely with Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann’s critique. Whilst, I enjoy many of Scott’s paintings I do not think he merits the enormous exposure he is receiving this year. Unlike some of his influences such as DeStael or Tapies, who in my opinion are much more original as well as exciting visually. By the way, if anybody wants to see more De Stael without travelling as far as America, the Musee Picasso in Antibes have a wonderful collection of De Stael’s work. A fabulous little museum by the market, perched on rocks overlooking the azure blue of the Mediterranean.

  2. paul barker said…

    The problem for critics is that they have to write, even when they feel no sympathy with the show in question. The result is a long whinge like this, full of pseudo-arguments to back what are simply opinions, a matter of taste.
    The only real ideas in the piece revolve around questions of the Artists intentions, a subject as interesting as the artists materials, the identity of the models or the weather when he was painting.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I don’t agree; it’s far from a whinge. But that’s just my opinion, and what you have written is yours. The way I see it, you could either not bother visiting this site, because, hey! – it’s full of writing; or you could write something yourself that you think is more illuminating. How about it?

  3. Andy Parkinson said…

    Thanks Robin! I was beginning to feel a little lonely in quite liking much of what I saw at the Hepworth.

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    Nice essay.
    Between us we seem to have a bit of a downer on Scott. There is a much more positive review of the Wakefield show by Andy Parkinson here: