The Planet on the Table

The Planet on the Table
David Anfam

[N.B. The plate & figure references in this text relate to the essay as it was published but most cannot be shown here for copyright reasons]

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things
—Wallace Stevens

The puritanical impulse motivating twentieth-century abstraction had its necessary adversary: in pursuit of the absolute, it repressed or purged an impure flip side. Piet Mondrian’s early depictions of flowers and girls, Kasimir Malevich’s volte-face into figuration during the late 1920s, and the carnivalesque biomorphs of Wassily Kandinsky’s final decade in Paris are but three signal instances of this unruly material which the spartan straight line, the black square or explosive color had aimed to transcend. Later in the century, the equivocation recurred. For example, several leading Abstract Expressionists—including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston—chose at one key stage or another to allow resurgent imagery to overcome their erstwhile allegiance to non-objectivity. Moreover, the two greatest exponents of pictorial high modernism, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, held back from the brink of utter abstraction in deference to the manifold suasions of sensual perception. Yet with modernism’s utopian aspirations consigned to history, its polemic against the recognizable world recedes to a thread in a broader philosophical warp and weft that modern painters have woven between the here and now and the beyond. The British artist William Scott bridged such divergent ends in a career spanning more than fifty years. As Scott once remarked, ‘I am an abstract artist in the sense that I 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.’[1]
That Scott’s fertile dialog between the particular and the universal, the earthy and the immaterial, is still sometimes liable to disconcert us reflects an overall singularity which renders him hard to pigeonhole. Probably the first British artist of note to visit Pollock on Long Island, in 1953, when he also began a good friendship in Manhattan with Mark Rothko (who reciprocated by staying at his at Hallatrow in Somerset while en route to Cornwall in 1959), and this precocious trip to the United States merely confirmed, in Sir Alan Bowness’s pithy conclusion, ‘Scott’s sense of being a European artist.’[2] Indeed, Scott’s stance was frequently more in tune with such Continental counterparts as Alberto Giacometti, Giorgio Morandi and Antoni Tàpies than with such native phenomena as 1940s Neo-Romanticism (which, after a brief flirtation, he soon eschewed) or the disquieted last-ditch humanism of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.[3] Even his nationality was of course compound, not English but rather Northern Irish-Scots. Crucially, the plebian objects, eroticism and tactility that feature throughout Scott’s work constituted a retort to the Platonic bias at the root of avant-garde abstraction. Namely, that the ideal is somehow more ‘real’ than the quotidian. Here Scott’s sensibility found the first of various echoes in a thinker who might otherwise prove wildly remote from him in personality and style—the other ‘WS, that is, the American poet Wallace Stevens. Among Stevens’s most startlingly memorable lines are those that upend the gist of Platonism’s anti-materialist fallacy:

Beauty is momentary in the mind—
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.[4]

In short, the cerebral can hardly be said to have ever breathed life compared to what has been, even if transiently, incarnate. To cite a favorite notion of Stevens’s, ‘poverty’ is synonymous with a state in which the imagination fails to inhabit the physical. Scott’s first fully mature paintings dating from around 1950 onwards initiated his imaginative twist on the commonplace in a spirit akin, as it were, to Stevens’s subtly counter-intuitive logic.

At face value, Still Life with Table Top (pl. 1) and its companion pieces suggest a debt to the kind of wartime Picassos that Scott saw in the latter’s joint exhibition (with Matisse) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the winter of 1945-46, such as Skull, Sea Urchins and Lamp on Table (fig.1). Actually, the differences between the two are as telling as any similarities, indicating Scott’s creative misprision of his precursor. First, Scott countered Picasso’s angular contortions with a handmade geometry—evident in the discs, the table’s sharp rectangle and the cross and triangle above—that lends a metaphysical air to the humble elements. The frying pan, the eggs and the table (perhaps augmented by a toasting fork) became major protagonists in Scott’s pictorial troupe. But their muteness is totally opposed to what Picasso wished his ostensibly comparable objects to declare, as he exclaimed to Pierre Daix: ‘You see, a saucepan can also cry out!’[5] In Scott’s entire oeuvre, virtually nothing cries out, although there is certainly motion, not least that movement of one thing to another which betokens desire. Secondly, whereas Picasso’s grisaille was a passing malaise, indexed to the bleak deprivation of occupied France, Scott’s bespoke a lifetime’s climate of experience.
Referring to his severe childhood in Scotland and Ulster, Scott remembered: ‘I was brought up in a grey world: the garden I knew was a cemetery and we had no fine furniture. The objects I painted were the symbols of the life I knew best and the pictures which looked most like mine were painted on walls a thousand years ago.’[6] Every text on Scott repeats this reminiscence for the altogether valid reason that it was his credo. What should we make of this ‘austerity’? A biographical view would attribute it to race or culture, the hard-bitten tenor of a Celtic inheritance, a trait later found in, say, the threadbare minimalism of Samuel Beckett or the grittiness of James Kelman's novels. But that is not the whole story, since Scott elevated it to a guiding aesthetic: ‘I find beauty in plainness.’[7] This is the condition that Stevens elsewhere identified with the clarity of wintry bareness, a zero degree of consciousness:

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir[8]

As Stevens implied, imagination (‘savoir’) must therefore stir from inertia to enliven the inanimate. Accordingly, Still Life with Table Top announced Scott’s lengthy preoccupation with animating the dramatis personae of ‘poverty’—his gaunt pots, pans, eggs and so forth, which subsequently he further reduced to flat, enigmatic semaphores.

The register of Still Life with Table Top is metaphor and metamorphosis, set at odds with stern rigor. The artist’s observation about another painting from this period applies: ‘It is probably one of the first instances when I make a double image, in that the picture has even less meaning than it had before as a number of objects coming together. These objects now take on another meaning, which is obscure, and I don’t personally like to point it out.'[9] If Scott’s phrasing intimates secrecies, his compositions point to their matrix: sexuality or desire. In this and cognate still lifes, the fishes and knives clamor towards the frying pan and its colander, like spermatozoa seeking an egg.[10] Likewise, the subsequent mackerel, its depictive skin tinged maybe with Chaïm Soutine’s scratchy painterliness, incises its plate with a distinctly phallic thrust (pl. 3); a little performance of eros trumping thanatos. In turn, in the former canvas the two eggs combine with the handles to fashion a trope for the male genitalia. These odd doubles entendres possess the mutability of psychic flux.[11] Their correlatives are leitmotifs—handles, knives, circular orifices—that convey tangibility, inviting the gaze to clutch and penetrate. The outcome is a strange amalgam of change and stillness, the sexual and the sacramental.[12]

By any standards, the expressive and stylistic leap from the foregoing still lifes to the output of the ensuing two or three years looks remarkable. It would be tempting to attribute this shift to Scott’s encounter with the new American Painting—except that the chronology confirms that they predate any such influence (and how much Abstract Expressionism Scott studied on his first North American trip is unclear, while the movement was not shown significantly in London until at least 1956 when the Tate’s Modern Art in the United States granted it a single room). Over and again, what at first might be taken for an external influence on Scott’s course instead turns out to be mostly a parallelism, partly because his very makeup was insular rather than outgoing.[13] In this respect, the nearest affinity that Black and White Forms and Black, Yellow and White Composition (pls. 5 and 6) evince is arguably with Robert Motherwell. Like Scott’s stark tableaux, such Motherwells as The Voyage (fig. 2) employ bold collage-like emblems, a restricted palette dominated by monochrome or earthy hues and an emotiveness or immanence that is as readily felt as it is hard to describe. In 1946, Motherwell stated what might stand, by proxy and proleptically, for Scott’s own rationale in the early 1950s: ‘The junction of the aesthetic instead becomes that of a medium, a means for getting at the infinite background of feeling in order to condense it into an object of perception.’[14]

The Harbour (pl. 4) particularly embodies this condensation. Dense in both its tactile facture and closely interlocking parts, it bears worthy comparison with the best instances of concurrent Abstract Expressionism while managing to skirt, without overly encroaching upon, the blockish morphologies of Nicolas de Staël. The dominant feeling of tension pivots on one factor: the slight bend of the dark jetty’s arm as it impregnates the pallid field. Consequently, the viewer may suspect that something deeper than formalist spatial manipulation is at stake. To quote Scott: ‘I have no theory. I am not concerned only with “space construction”. What matters to me in a picture is the “indefinable”.’[15] Despite Scott’s insistence on painting’s autonomy from literature and other media, this is not just a retort to the Constructivist ethos, but is also far from the dispassionate discourse of Clive Bell and Roger Fry’s ‘significant form’ or, subsequently, Clement Greenberg’s cult of modernist flatness. If anything, it is closer to the psychological dynamics of Adrian Stokes writings. Stokes discerned indefinable tremors of disclosure and hiddenness, light and density, in stony matter. The Harbour has that kind of tense resonance.

Having blurred distinctions between still life and landscape in The Harbour, Scott’s next moves were typically idiosyncratic. Rather than adopt a linear path, he tended towards dialectic: ‘Every painting I do is related to the last one: it may be a continuation of a previous painting, or it may be a reaction against it.’[16] The departures of 1953-54 go both ways. The grisaille tonality continued that of the early still lifes and The Harbour. By contrast, after probing deeply into abstraction, the figure now returned. Henceforth, figure, still life and landscape became interchangeable.

If the figure’s bulk at this point bears some relationship to Jean Dubuffet’s Corps de dame series (to be sure, both engage primitivism and graffiti-like mark making), its rigidly foursquare linearity does not.[17] Instead of emulating Dubuffet, Scott transformed the nude into a tabletop spread across the picture plane—in Patrick Heron’s phrasing, ‘a mysterious animated quadruped’.[18] The repression into objecthood went hand in hand with a cartographic aura. Is it sheer coincidence that during the Second World War Scott had been in the Ordnance Section of the Royal Engineers working on maps, a discipline that by definition distances and organizes what is potentially tangible and inchoate?[19] Be that as it may, drawing also came to the fore during this period, as though in reaction to the previous rich pigment layers, which thus grew stony or chalky. However, Scott’s draftsmanship shared the ambiguities of his painting practice. ‘Drawing for me is exploring, not explaining, containing geometry, sex, distortion and correction, forms pure and impure.’[20] Besides the fact that this could almost have been the late Guston speaking avant la letter (Scott’s works on paper indeed range from extremes of meticulous refinement to gross bluntness analogous to those of the American’s), the artist’s statement draws attention to the crux of the charcoal Seated Woman and particularly Black and White Abstract (pls. 9 and 10). It may concern an element that Scott in another context called ‘the secret in the picture.’[21] Without question, it evokes the female’s sex: a short central vertical in the former charcoal and a similarly placed dark gap in the latter canvas. Simultaneously, though, the pictorial architectonics—slightly akin to Rothko’s rectangles—lock up any latent carnality in a tight grip. Rothko summarized the effect well when he enumerated the ingredients of his own work: ‘Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist…. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.’[22] Scott would surely have agreed.

Within a couple of years, Scott allowed sensuousness back into his syntax. For him, it was indistinguishable from pigment’s presence and rawness. ‘The actual touch and the way I put paint on canvas matter very much. I am extremely interested in textural qualities—the thick paint, the thin paint, the scratched lines, the almost careful-careless way in which a picture’s painted… I don’t like a picture painted with a too slick, too efficient technique—painting with too much know-how.’[23] In this faux-crude haptic vein, the still lifes of 1956-57 count among his most exuberant, their scumble-textured glow ranging from high-pitched golds reminiscent of J. M. W. Turner’s sun-struck atmospheres to shadowy brown and blue (pls. 11, 16, 18 and 19). The proliferating pots and pans are spread out like trophies in a cornucopia, a constellation unto themselves. To catch their contrasting moods by paraphrasing two of Stevens’s titles, the warm ‘credences of summer’ match the chilly ‘auroras of autumn’. The Nude (pl. 12) renders the hedonism explicit. Pierre Bonnard’s recumbent bathtub nymph has fused with Rothko’s engulfing refulgence (figs. 3 and 4). Rothko also revered Bonnard for his dissolution of flesh and feminity into luminosity, the triangulation between the three is exact.[24] Like Bonnard, too, Scott painted from memory, additionally employing photographs to mediate the real with the re-created. ‘I want to paint what I see but never immediately; there must be a time lapse, “a waiting time” for the visual experience to become involved with all other experience. That is why I paint from memory.’[25] The flavor is Proustian.

With the turn of a new decade, Scott entered fresh territory. In the early 1960s his abstractions attained an innovative, monumental assurance. Vestiges of ordinary artifacts—from paint brush heads to the familiar circular pans—populated White, Sand and Ochre (pl. 21) and related canvases. Revenants, they are aggrandized virtually to the point of being unrecognizable. The frontal signs may summon Adolph Gottlieb’s hieroglyphs in his Pictographs, except it is improbable Scott would have harked back to these ideograms of the 1940s and, pari passu, probable that he thought instead of ancient Egypt’s archaic simplicities, reiterated by two titles from 1958, Egyptian Memory (pl. 17) and Journey to Egypt. On this count and others, Stevens is again apposite. Scott never visited Egypt; the poet never knew the Europe to which he repeatedly referred. Each needed to reimagine their artistic universe, in the process manipulating strategies of memory, metaphor and concealment.[26]

Bonnard may also have informed Scott’s closing phase—another surprising departure—insofar as he could have discerned in the French painter qualities that increasingly prevailed in his last years: a seductive light, encompassing colour (the one dissolved in the other), a strange obliqueness and the workings of desire. Consider Bonnard’s In the Bathroom (see fig. 4). As the painter’s focus turns upwards to the window, the blueness assumes a dematerialized cast, becoming an ether in which everyday shapes—the mullions, the walls, the tub’s side—lose their identify, floating and interlocking. With the female subject nearly vanished from sight beneath the composition’s lower edge, the observer assumes her recumbent perspective. We can get a simple idea of its significance by considering the shift between thinking when standing upright and doing so when flat on our back. Yet Bonnard’s image is suffused with a sensuality that swells in inverse proportion to the disappearance of the inamorata, his wife Marthe.

The Berlin Blues group (pl. 26) announced a climactic turning-point in Scott’s trajectory. On the one hand, it was in step with Hard Edge and post-painterly abstraction trends in the 1960s. Thus the pale quasi-geometries have something in common with those of Paul Feeley (fig. 5), while the sparse crispness and sense of levitation find equivalents in Gottlieb (fig. 6)-notwithstanding some residual inheritance from the lengthy Celtic tradition of pattern making (and, we may recall, Scott's father was a sign painter). On the other hand, the affinities with Bonnard are less superficially obvious. The limpid colors, becoming more pronounced through the 1970s, have Bonnard’s disembodied airiness. Second, in both painters everything appears to hover, stopping without ending, at the composition’s limits. Last, if the interlocking and aligned motifs merely hint at some erotic conjugation, the corps morcelé of Figure Fragments (pl. 30) and the graphically sexual studies for Private Suite (1973) prove that these constituted, as did Bonnard’s obsession with Marthe, the lineaments of desire.[27]

It was Stevens who asserted that ‘the lover, the believer and the poet’ used ‘words chosen out of their desire.’ Insofar as Scott is concerned, he might have added the painter to this colloquy. Stevens voiced that belief in poem titled ‘A Primitive Like an Orb’[28]. The phrase could as well describe the rudimentary circles and other levitated motifs presiding over Scott’s last paintings, serene and now drained of the conflicted drives of the past. Unearthly and iconic, they feel like eidetic images conjured from memory or the psyche. As Scott had once assembled his world on a kitchen’s surface, so here it seems to calmly drift aloft. Stevens called this encompassing of the tangible and the supernal ‘The Planet on the Table’[29]. And if the jug and other household things that impose a breathtakingly naked idea of order upon Scott’s last visions (pls. 37 and 38) have a precedent, could it perhaps be in Stevens’s well-known ‘Anecdote of the Jar’?

The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.[30]

Quelling the unruly natural forces that are nevertheless its foil, Stevens’s jar is an apt parable for the form-giving principles of creativity—the fugue of desire, repression and resolution that quickens Scott’s haunting art.[31]

I would particularly like to thank James and Robert Scott, along with Charlie Whitehead of the Scott Archive, for their generous assistance.
[1] In Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, Their Work and Theory (London: A. Tiranti, 1954), 37.
[2] Alan Bowness, ed., William Scott: Paintings (London: Lund Humphries, 1964), 9.
[3] Nonetheless, Scott and Bacon did participate in joint shows at London's Hanover Gallery and the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York.
[4] ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier,’ in Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (London: Faber and Faber, 1955), 91.
[5] In Pierre Daix, Picasso-créateur: La vie intime et l'oeuvre (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987), 294.
[6] Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, Their Work and Theory, 37
[7] In Michael Rothenstein, Looking at Paintings (London: George Routledge ans Sons, 1947), 36.
[8] ‘The Plain Sense of Things,’ in Stevens, Collected Poems, 502.
[9] In Bowness, William Scott,, 8.
[10] The kitchen as a site of animation (and licentiousness), because of its association with the life force of food, is an old topos, exemplified in the anonymous nineteenth-century British jingle, ‘When midst the frying-pan in accents savage,/The Beef so surly quarrels with the Cabbage.’
[11] Although Surrealism was alien to Scott’s temperament, his erotic themes extended its concerns.
[12] Evidently Scott was aware of the eggs and fishes in Diego Velázquez’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (probably 1618; National Gallery, London); see Norbert Lynton, William Scott (London: Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 1990), n.p.
[13] Assuming there was no new art to see in New York (!), Scott only made a last-minute decision to stop there on his return from Alberta in 1953.
[14] ‘Beyond the Aesthetic,’ in Dore Ashton and Joan Banach, eds., The Writings of Robert Motherwell (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2007), 54.
[15] In Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, x.
[16] In Bowness, William Scott,, 5.
[17] This rectangular schema approaches that of some of de Kooning’s Women, whose mass echoes the picture’s format. Another distant affinity is with the rigour of Giacometti's figures; the two artists were friends.
[18] Patrick Heron, Review of William Scott: Exhibition of Works,’ The New Statesman and Nation, 20 June 1953, 730.
[19] The cartographic impulse certainly influenced such Abstract Expressionists as Pollock, Motherwell and William Baziotes.
[20] In Lou Klepac, ed., William Scott: Drawings (New York: David Anderson, 1975), n.p.
[21] In Bowness, William Scott, 8.
[22] ‘Address to Pratt Institute, November [sic] 1958,’ in Mark Rothko, Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, ed. Miguel López-Remiro(New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006), 125.
[23] In Bowness, William Scott, 11.
[24] Similarly, as Rothko enthused about the late Turner, so Scott held the latter to be the greatest British artist.
[25] In The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955), 75.
[26] On Stevens’s ‘secrecies’, see the eponymous chapter in Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out Of Desire (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1984), 44-60.
[27] If the photograph reproduced in Norbert Lynton, William Scott (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 394, is any fair indication, Scott’s sources were nothing less than raunchy. Moreover, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) attests, inter alia, to the linkage of fragmentation and libidinousness.
[28] Stevens, Collected Poems, 441.
[29] Stevens, Collected Poems, 532. Other poems by Stevens, such as ‘The Dove in the Belly,’ confirm the bird’s association with sexual desire. By a curious coincidence, Scott was friendly with one of Stevens’s favourite artists, Tal Coat.
[30] Stevens, Collected Poems, 76.
[31] The sole commentator to broach this central issue is Simon Morley; see his ‘Scott After Modernism,’ in William Scott: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat. (London: Merrell Holberton in association with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1998), 14-29.

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