Artwork of the Month - November 2016

Black Bottle and Yellow, 1954

Black Bottle and Yellow
Oil on hardboard
65 x 81.1 cm / 25½ x 32 in
Private collection

Black Bottle and Yellow was painted the year after William Scott visited New York, where he saw at first hand the work of artists such as Rothko and de Kooning. The experience of seeing these abstract expressionist paintings was an important one, yet while Scott was impressed by the scale and energy of the canvases he had seen, they also served to reinforce his sense of belonging to a European figurative tradition. He later wrote of this period in his career:
‘I came to the conclusion that there was in fact no reason why I should continue with abstraction. My experience in America gave me a determination to repaint much of what I had left unfinished in the terms of symbolic still life. With the example of Ben Nicholson, whom I much admired, there was no reason for me to be devoted solely to abstraction and I embarked on a process of re-discovery. My pictures now contained not only recognisable imagery but textures and a freedom to distort.’ (William Scott, 1972)

Black Bottle and Yellow is one of the paintings in which an earlier, more rigid austerity was abandoned in favour of greater colour and texture, played out though the familiar still-life forms of pans and a bottle on a table-top. Nevertheless, elements of abstraction remain, not least in the extreme flattening and tilting upwards of the table, a move that would recur throughout Scott’s work of the fifties. As Robert Melville commented of the 1950s still-lifes: ‘The table itself now has a tendency to become a wall, and the paint pats frequently give way to written signs.’ (Robert Melville, Motif 8, 1961) These ‘signs’ emerged from the artist’s growing interest in the art of ancient cultures which greatly informed his development at that time. In Black Bottle and Yellow, the floating, schematic forms call to mind the cave paintings at Lascaux and tomb paintings of ancient Egypt.

Central to Scott’s new way of working was a return to drawing, a process which was, for him, often rapid and experimental; through it he would discover much that he later translated into paint. ‘It is in the act of making that the subject takes form, it is in the adding, stretching, taking away and searching for the right and exact statement that a tension is set up,’ wrote Scott in 1955. At the time when Black Bottle and Yellow was executed, Scott played down the fact that he did, at times, also make more focused preparatory studies for some paintings, but in 1975, in the book edited by Lou Klepac dedicated to Scott’s drawings, a preliminary charcoal drawing for the painting was published. The study and the finished oil are not exact partners, and their juxtaposition is all the more interesting for it. The drawing acts almost as the central motif of the oil, expanded and in the process monumentalised in the painted version.

Black Bottle and Yellow was exhibited widely during Scott’s lifetime. Its first showing was at Wakefield Art Gallery in 1956 in the exhibition Vision and Reality. Scott would subsequently choose to include it in major retrospectives of his work: at the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, in 1960; at the Kunsthalle, Bern and Ulster Museum, Belfast, in 1963; and at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1972.

Supporting image
Drawing for Black Bottle and Yellow, 1954