William Scott's exhibition within the 1958 Venice Biennale established him securely as a major figure in contemporary painting. It toured Europe subsequently, and additional solo exhibitions were put on in Zürich and Hanover. William and his wife, Mary, were often present at these events: they became international celebrities. In 1961 eleven of Scott's paintings were shown at the Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil. He was awarded the International Critics' Purchase Prize, and that exhibition toured South America. In Britain he was respected and also rather taken for granted as a 'Middle Generation' painter; the painters he appeared to be in competition with at the international level tended to be a good deal older than he.
In February 1963 he became fifty - a moment, perhaps for reflecting on what he had achieved and what was possible. In fact, his art changed markedly and more than once during the early 1960s. He put aside the luscious, multi-layered idiom that had shown up so well in the new still lifes displayed in Venice. His art seemed to become more austere, more geometrical, more abstract, more 'up front' as we would say today. Where his best paintings of the late 1950s had been built up slowly, becoming dreamy evocations of typical objects on remembered tabletops, they became forthright statements: a surface, often white, and clear form arranged on it, executed, it seemed, without after thoughts and over-painting. If the gorgeous paintings he had shown in Venice had something of the modern 'old master' about them, he shed this now, just as, at the start of the 1950s, he had for a while adopted a strangely austere idiom, mostly black lines painted on rich white grounds, for ambiguously abstract/figurative images. Many of his paintings of the early 1960s were abstract and said so in their titles.
The same years saw dramatic developments in British and international art. In Britain, during 1960-63, an association of younger painters exhibited tough, relatively impersonal and unpoetic abstract works under the title Situation, distancing themselves form the nature-based art of the St Ives School, with which Scott was sometimes associated. The paintings are large and strong, the artists were articulate and forthright, and if their success at the time was limited this was due largely to the sudden swing of media interest to the young Pop artists who emerged in 1961-62 and pleased the public with their bright and often humorous scenes and tales. In the USA, too, art moved towards bold austerity and then also Pop impertinence: could a Warhol array of soup cans or a Lichtenstein-enhanced comic strip count as art when Rothko and others had striven for sublimity? What became known as Minimalism emerged in New York during 1965-66, but had been forming internationally as a challenge to the emotional appeals of Abstract Expressionism.
In 1964 William and Mary Scott accepted an invitation to spend a year in West Berlin where they would be part of an international cultural exchange programme organized partly to contrast Western free creativity with the severely limited cultural life lived on the other side of the Berlin Wall. They greatly enjoyed this visit, and asked to extend their stay by a few months, into 1965. They were away from their normal environment, friends, galleries and Britain's still timid responses to new art. Scott, part Irish part Scot, never felt entirely English. Nothing was asked of him in Berlin but that he should work in the studio provided for him, exhibit once or twice in the city, and on occasion mingle with other foreigners invited under this scheme and their German hosts and colleagues. The Scotts made two particular friends: Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer whose avant-garde music was structured and coherent in ways they could appreciate, and Hans Scharoun, the elderly German architect whose career had been blocked by the Nazis but whose new concert hall, the Philharmonie, they visited frequently as Scharoun's guests and greatly admired for its post-modernist form and acoustic qualities.
William embarked on what became known as his Berlin Series: mostly large paintings of blue forms painted into white surfaces. Abstract? - yes, though some of the forms were distantly related to his earlier still lifes. Up front? - very much so, almost emblems of an unexplained sort and hidden messages. Some of the US painters promoted by the critic Clement Greenberg were working similarly, presenting painted forms, impersonal and claiming nothing more than to be self-sufficient aesthetic objects made of paint and canvas. There was a general call to 'refresh art', or to be or look young. But Scott's paintings incorporated subtleties that theirs did not. Most important is the fact that his forms are neither hard-edged nor melting into the cloth, and Scott used many blues for them. They look brusque, but Scott worked their edges so that they merge with their white settings rather than contrast with them. If the forms themselves, some newborn, some descended from earlier paintings, can be seen as a new set of still life motifs then the whole canvas has become the tabletop, confronting us vertically with little or no hint of space within the painting but often with forms, large or small, implying continuity beyond the canvases limits. The sequence, some of it completed in London on his return and much of it shown at the Hanover Gallery in 1966, was his overture to the magnificent neo-classical still lifes of the 1970s.
Blue Still Life announces this new series. Three forms, one small, two sizable, entering the white surface from the right and left edges are familiar from the Berlin Series, but the others belong to the future: the blue frying pan hanging from the top edge - it makes a big difference whether the handles of these simplified pans touch the top or not - and the solid blue dish form, but especially the two objects shown in outline with just a hint of blueness within them. One of them must be a dish seen from above, and the other a bowl seen in profile and thus hinting at three-dimensionality and space. This neat illogicality is frequent in the neo-classical series. It has something humorous about it, as has Scott's insistence on forms not made quite round or oval or symmetrical. This gives them vividness - life - in our eyes and subtly undermines the whole notion of neoclassical perfection.
We are very grateful to Professor Norbert Lynton for preparing this catalogue entry.
Richard Davis (1917-1985), the original purchaser of Blue Still Life, was a well-known art collector as well as being Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art from 1956 to 1959. As a connoisseur collector, he had extremly high standards in his own acquistions, carefully chosing the very best works, each to a museum-quality, quality over quantity, in the various eclectic collecting fields that interested him. Previously Christie's sold two stunning works from his collection at auction, each one setting auction records. On 6 July 1987 Francesco Guardi's chalk, ink and brown wash of The Grand Canal with the Ca'Pesaro (recto); The Grand Canal by Santa Stae (verso) sold for £429,000, a record auction price for a drawing by Guardi. Later that year, on 15 November, Henri Matisse's charcoal of Lydia sold for 90,000, a record auction price for a charcoal by that artist. Other works, previously in his collection that have been acquired by public institutions, include two drawings by Claude Monet; one that is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, another that has been acquired by the Eugene Thaw foundation for the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.
As Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Davis attracted some controversy when he sold several important works from the Institute including Titian's Temptation of Christ; his goal was to concentrate on acquiring fewer works of the highest quality possible. In turn, the Institute significantly improved its collections by gaining major works by Poussin, Van Dyck, Guardi, Cézanne, Seurat and Degas, as well as sculpture by Rodin, Maillol and Brancusi.
Sarah Whitfield is currently preparing the Catalogue Raisonné of works in oil by William Scott. The William Scott Foundation would like to hear from owners of any work by the artist so that these can be included in this comprehensive catalogue or in future projected catalogues. Please write to Sarah Whitfield c/o Christie's, 20th Century British Art Department, 8 King Street, London, SW1Y 6QT.