Encapsulating the concerns that had pre-occupied Scott throughout his career, this monumental work is an outstanding illustration of Scott’s later oeuvre. Following the energetic and rhythmic nature of his series of ‘Berlin Blues’ from the mid 1960s (see lot 26) and the outburst of curvilinear shapes and forms that he developed for murals at Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry and the new Irish Television Centre, Dublin, Scott's series of work from the late 1960s and 70s took on a fresh and understated aesthetic. His new pictures marked a return to the still life subject matter that had been a major pre-occupation throughout his life and which had become fundamental to both the form and content of his work.
The genesis for his life-long treatment of the theme was a visit to an exhibition in Paris in the summer of 1946 entitled ‘A Thousand Years of Still Life Painting’ which left him 'really overwhelmed by the fact that the subject had hardly changed for 1000 years, and yet each generation in turn expressed its own period and feelings and time within this terribly limited narrow range of the still life ' (Scott, quoted in Norbert Lynton, William Scott, London 2004, p.61). Despite the seemingly 'limited' subject, the exhibition clearly left him in no doubt as to the power of the genre and its capacity for artistic creativity. By 1969, the year that marked his new series on the still-life theme, Scott had developed a limited vocabulary of distinctive forms evident in the present work: the long handled frying pan, square bowl placed on a flattened table top. Scott explained the origin of his use of these objects in his work and in particular the frying pan in a letter of 1952: ‘I had been interested in the works of Braque for a long time but I felt that it was dishonest to merely take as some people have done the guitar, the carafe and the French loaf. I felt that in painting my own familiar objects I might imbue them with a conviction characteristic of both myself and my race, if the guitar was to Braque his Madonna the frying pan would be my guitar. Black was a colour I was fond of and I possessed at that moment a very black pan’ (Scott, 1952, quoted in Sarah Whitefield, William Scott, Tate Publishing, London, 2013, p.25). The instantly recognisable forms of vessels in Dark Earth Scheme clearly reference early works such as The Frying Pan (1946, Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery, London). However, the minimalist handling also demonstrates the evolution of Scott’s work in an abstract direction since the 1940s and a new sense of space pervades this large-scale work which in part was influenced by Scott’s awareness of the developments in art across the Atlantic. His first major engagement with American Art was in 1953, when Martha Jackson invited him to New York where he was introduced to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and most significantly Mark Rothko who would in turn visit Scott in Cornwall in 1959 and the two would become firm friends. The impact of this art on Scott was immediate: ‘My first impression was bewilderment, it was not the originality of the work, but it was the scale, audacity and self-confidence – something had happened to painting … I returned convinced that the Americans had made a great discovery’. As one of the first British artists to meet these ‘New York School’ artists, Scott became a vital conduit for the dissemination of American ideas amongst his circle of friends. Like Rothko, Scott wanted his audience to become physically engaged with his painting – as he put it ‘become integrated in its rhythm’ and as such the large size of Dark Earth Scheme draws us into its space and is central to its impact. The forms hover at the edges of the canvas, almost suggesting that the composition is part of an even larger image. Scott has reduced the number of objects, each of which is carefully placed to create a harmonious balance to the work, allowing him to concentrate on the division of space and form – an overriding concern to him at the time.
Despite Scott’s focus on the on the painted surface, the still-life element is still central to this work at this time, albeit presented in its most simplified form. Scott has removed the perspective of his earlier still lifes, so the table is no longer discernible, rather the familiar objects are placed on a backdrop of deep rich brown pigments. The paint has not been knifed onto the canvas as was the case with his use of rich impasto in the 50s, rather, it has been applied softly by brush in thin coats creating a flat delicate surface. The iconic black pan and bowls are silhouetted in a limited palette of orange, white, black and brown. By using a restricted palette of colours specific to each work, Scott was able to explore different variations on the same theme in these studies of tone and form. Moving on from the first works in the series such as Still Life Brown with Black Note (1969, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin), the present work, painted in 1973, the year after his major retrospective at the Tate, London, represents the climax of this group. The rich, ochre tones provide a marked contrast to the cooler tones of other works from the period such as Still Life Muted (1973, Merrion Hotel Collection, Dublin) and Linear Still life (1973, Minneapolis Institute of Arts). The combination of elements demonstrates the purity of Scott’s vision and provides a clear indication of his command of this subject. Following an exhibition of this series at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1973, Hilton Kramer, wrote in The New York Times, that Scott was ‘not only the best painter of his generation in England, but one of the best anywhere’. He continues ‘Although the forms Mr. Scott employs are highly simplified, they nonetheless boast a remarkable poetic resonance. They ‘breathe’ and suggest a very personal emotional atmosphere … one feels at times as if Malevich or even Ben Nicholson had been radically revised by Rothko or even Whistler, for something akin to the hard-edge formalities of the first two has been beautifully transmuted by the tonal romanticism of the latter two’ (New York Times, 6 January, 1973).
That Dr John O’Driscoll, one of Ireland’s most significant collectors of International Modernism and a supporter of the contemporary Irish Art scene, chose this work for his collection, purchasing it direct from Gimpel Fils following the exhibition in 1974, is testament to its importance. Dark Earth Scheme would have hung alongside works by Kees van Dongen, Paul Signac, Edgar Degas, Joan Mitchell, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein and Alberto Giacometti and Rodin, as well as Scott’s friend and supporter Patrick Heron.
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