Painted not long after Brown Still Life (lot 167), Orange and Red exemplifies a remarkable change in the character of his painting. The most striking fact is that the painter who had stressed, in words that were often quoted even when they no longer fitted his art, that his still lifes reflected his experience of 'a grey world, an austere world' and that he painted commonplace kitchen utensils because 'these things are completely uninteresting' and 'convey nothing', in 1956-7 began to work in a mode that conveys relaxation of his innate discipline. But this contrast, though striking, must not be exaggerated. Some of his black-and-white paintings of the early 1950s, often seen as diagrammatic renderings of their stated subjects (though these can be riddles, as in Figure into Landscape, painted in 1953, and again in 1954; neither of them representing a figure or a landscape) and therefore described as abstract, are unexpectedly rich in paint, layer being added to layer so as to allow glimpses of colour beneath the dense white. Such layering implies time and a process demanding successive decisions. That continues after 1956, to become more evident and more pleasurable. The kitchen utensils he had painted so often, most obviously his pots and bowls, become rounded shapes that need not be taken to refer to anything but can be packed closely or scattered on the canvas in large and small forms. His one-man show at the 1958 Venice Biennale was dominated by these more luxurious paintings and therefore puzzled some critics at first, but that display immediately led on to many others in continental Europe and in New York and an international reputation as one of the leading painters of the day.
We need not see still life motifs in Orange and Red. Did Scott choose that title to discourage our doing so? Other titles of the time admit the link to still life; others again, as in the large Blue Yellow and Brown (1957), emphasize the colour chord of the picture, and in one well-known instance, the large work on paper in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester University, Scott seems to refute any such links by calling it Gouache: Abstract. The possibility and the propriety of art being abstract was still a matter of some dispute in 1950s Britain. Nicholas de Staël's paintings, greatly admired by some British painters, had shown that paint could be used laid on lavishly as such while the forms used suggested various figures, still lifes or landscapes or indeed were wholly abstract.
Tate Gallery shows of modern American art, in 1956 and then of the contemporary New York School in 1959, gave the problem of abstractness (as opposed to 'abstraction', which implies modifying a visual motif) additional urgency. Scott had spent some time in New York in 1953 and had formed friendships with some of the most important painters associated with that School. But their work varied widely and was not even dedicated to abstractness - see De Kooning's Woman series of 1953. But they were dedicated to the personal, sometimes emotionally expressive, use of the medium: colour and the action of the brush or other utensils spoke from every example. Scott by no means aligned himself with the brave new art of New York, much of it made by artists a good deal older than himself, and it is often said that New York taught him to value his roots in the European tradition. One of its strengths was the structuring of compositions, what Scott called 'dividing the canvas' and had made a dominant characteristic of his painting around 1950. One imagines that major divisions were determined, or at least felt, even before the painter knew what the subject of a picture was to be. With the paintings of 1956 and after, he seems to shelve this priority, even at times to abandon it. Orange and Red suggests a total freedom from structuring ... until one becomes aware of the strong red forms blocking the composition at the right edge, the relatively empty central area (a Bonnard device often honoured), and the steadier array of orange blocks in the left third of the painting, and again bottom right, resembling stone walls. Then there is the rough white line that marks a kind of horizon (another inheritance from Bonnard), and one's growing awareness of yellow brushstrokes brought in to define forms more than one would expect in this context. As the forms become more assertive, we also notice that size is, or can be, associated with location, with closeness or distance, so that what at first seemed like a more or less flat and continuous surface of paint (which of course it continues to be physically), begins to swell and recede, a variable flux having little to do with objects arrayed on a table. For this and other reasons, Patrick Heron, the painter who was one of Scott's warmest and most intelligent admirers, asserted that what he called 'animal vitality' was patent Scott's work of those years.
The relatively brash, clearly unresolved, painting of a Seated Nude on the obverse of this canvas, using the surface in its 'portrait' orientation, is a late adventure in a direction Scott had initiated in 1953 with two tall paintings, in black and white, of severely minimalized nudes seated on chairs which fuse with the figures to make one linear design. This led into such paintings as the two Figure into Landscape pictures mentioned above, but also into a fascinating series of pictures in which still life objects, usually a tall coffee pot, would be represented as placed on a surface that could well be the seat of a chair, but grows thighs and other partial anatomies until the design teeters continually between a human presence and an inorganic group. Some Scott nudes of the mid-1950s are surprisingly harsh images, lacking entirely the admiring or at times (perhaps inspired by the sculptures his friend and colleague Kenneth Armitage was making) affectionately humourous attitude that Scott displays in many a painting of women, before and later. Here, in the unfinished nude discovered when the painting was unhooked from Lynn Chadwick's wall, we find something of the same harshness though we cannot tell how the finished picture might have looked. It is striking that he used here a strong ochre, together with black, whites and greys, that reappears in an even deeper tone in the Hirshhorn Museum's White Reclining Nude of 1956. There, as in many Scott nudes of the 1950s, the head is rendered as a neckless bundle of black hair, squeezed in on the extreme right; here he has begun to indicate a neck and at least part of a frontal head, squeezed in against the top edge. It is her torso that dominates the arrangement, and her substantial physique is declared without much thought for the supporting chair.
We are very grateful to Professor Norbert Lynton, author of the monograph William Scott (2004), for providing this catalogue entry.