‘My background was a very austere one, one of great simplicity, and I often feel that the way I paint was decided by that background’ (Scott, quoted in A. Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, London, 1964, p. 5).
In the 1980s Scott continued to pursue the synthesis between austerity and sensuality, a dialogue that had preoccupied him throughout his life. Concentrating on what he described as ‘beauty in plainness’, Scott strove for a more streamline and minimal aesthetic, which could express the powers of image making. In 1955 he explained his ambition, ‘I would like to combine a sensual eroticism with a starkness, which will be instinctive and uncontrived’ (Scott, quoted in A. Bowness, William Scott: Paintings, London, 1964, p. 5). This notion of being uncontrived was important to Scott who wished to express an eternal validity in his works and present symbols of life, which in their simplicity offered a satisfying richness. Still life became his ‘chief occupation’, granting him an abstract and timeless genre, which would provide him with the freedom to experiment and exploit space and form.
Still Life is one of the most beautiful examples of Scott’s later oeuvre, showcasing the artist’s mastery of tone and line. The forms are discernable as simplified still-life objects, to the right displaying Scott’s iconic pan motif and to the left a plate of fish. Stripped of any additional adorning or frivolous detail, Scott presents the objects in their simplest form; the pan delineated by a simple outline and the fish abstracted into flat silhouettes, identified by an intense cobalt blue tone. Scott has removed the perspective employed in his earlier still lifes so there is now no discernable table top, but instead a stark, white backdrop, which highlights the flatness of the pictorial space. Deploying an exceptionally neat and strikingly economical aesthetic, through the exacting placement of his items and carefully balanced palette, Scott grants a harmonious dignity and resonance to the composition.
What is most captivating about Still Life is Scott’s utilisation of space. The division of space and form became of paramount importance to Scott, who freed himself from the object and concentrated instead on the physical act of painting. The painted surface now becomes of central focus to him, manipulating tonal contrasts, tension of forms and proportions to generate sensations of space and depth. Scott explained this new stage, ‘I had returned to a new phase of abstraction with the difference that I was now prepared to leave larger areas of undisturbed colour. I no longer worry whether a painting is about something or not: I am only concerned with the expectation from a flat surface of an illusion' (Scott, quoted in exhibition catalogue, William Scott, New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, 2010, p. 53). One is often conditioned to see the areas of white as negative, or at best neutral, however Still Life subverts this practice, making the area of ‘undisturbed colour’ the key. Here the emptiness seems to bestow some primitive power or presence. Indeed primitivism in art was important to Scott who looked to the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux and the Pompeian frescoes he saw in the late 1950s for inspiration, admiring their strong tactile and plastic qualities.
What is also notable is the increased size in which Scott worked from the 1960s onwards. One contributing factor was his 1958 commission to paint a huge 49 feet long mural for the new Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry. The impact of which can be seen in Still Life and other works of the period where shapes are often cut off by the edges of the composition in such a way to suggest the picture was a section of a larger field. The enlargement of his work, along with his increased clarification of style and simplification of form, has also been linked to the American Abstract Expressionist painters who he met in 1953 on his return from teaching at a school in Banff, Alberta in Canada. Visiting New York and Long Island, Scott met Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and Rothko, amongst other names. The size and impact of their paintings amazed him and he was struck by their immediacy and directness.
Although he had a huge admiration for their work he did not seek to emulate them. In fact through them Scott recognised the essentially traditional European basis of his art. For Scott, cannot be seen as an abstract painter, and it was a label he always sought to avoid. Scott sought something simpler and more solid than the pictorial manifestations of abstraction. One must see his work as a dialogue between the particular and the universal and the earthly and the immaterial. He stated, ‘I am an abstract artist in the sense that I am abstract. I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and the erotic, disconcerting contours, the things of life’ (ibid., p. 7).
Norbert Lynton summarised, 'What drives the series is Scott's continual discovery of alternative compositional and colour strategies. In both respects, he was shunning drama and fullness. That means also shunning effects of time, whether in showing the process by which the final painting was reached or in suggesting ancientness in the subjects. We experience in them visual silence which, after the first moment, opens out into a kind of musicality. Time is sensed in the intervals between motifs, while the echoing shapes, together with the discreet use of colour, yield a sense of harmony. To encounter one of these still lifes in a mixed display is exhilarating; to see several together is fascinating because of the dialogue between them' (N. Lynton, William Scott, London, 2004, pp. 313-316).