Last summer, Bill Scott and I were invited to participate in final critiques at the Mount Gretna School of Art. Critiques are usually predictable affairs, but I was surprised by Scott’s interactions with the students. While the rest of us would reflect on what we saw as the student’s intent, or help them locate the strongest pieces, Scott was quietly looking. More than once, he focused on a painting that the rest of us initially found weak, telling students to hold onto it, to remember what they were trying to do, and consider how it would take them forward. Every comment of his seemed to come from a place of love.
It was not surprising, therefore, that in our recent conversation over beer and lunch in the back rooms of Hollis Taggart Galleries, where a solo exhibition of his work is running through April 16th, Scott spoke of his desire for the paintings to manifest a kindness and emotional ease. However, Scott’s paintings are not “easy.” With their deep rose and blue-green hues, they abstractly suggest plant forms, branches, and the low skylines of his native Philadelphia. The recent paintings, even more than earlier work, are about a saturation and layering of sense memory. Within each, different kinds of marks and forms co-exist: dark outlines, aqueous thin and rubbed passages, and delineated color blocks. They feel like experiences multiplied, rather than synthesized.
Scott was born in Philadelphia in 1956 and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1974 to 1979. He was informally mentored by Jane Piper, herself a student of Arthur B. Carles, in his high school years. He also worked closely with Joan Mitchell. He is recognized as an authority on the work of Berthe Morisot, on whom he published an article for American Artist Magazine in 1977. He was a guest curator of the 1987 Morisot exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Since 2004, Scott has been represented by Hollis Taggart. He was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Albemarle Gallery, London, in 2006 and 2010, and at Mangel Gallery, Philadelphia, in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was a member of the Prince Street Gallery, New York, in the 1990s. In 2008, a solo exhibition was held at the List Gallery at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. In addition to his writing on Morisot, Scott has also published articles and essays on Arthur B. Carles, Joan Mitchell, and other contemporary painters in Art in America, American Artist Magazine, and several exhibition catalogs.
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Jennifer Samet: How did you start looking at and making art?
Bill Scott: I was always drawing as a kid. My best friend and I would draw Fred Flintstone ad infinitum. He was our hero. I didn’t know what art was, nor did I care. When I was about ten, my parents took me to a show of Andrew Wyeth. I remember thinking, “I don’t need to be a painter.” It looked like a lot of work to achieve an end result for which I had no interest.
I went to a Quaker school in Philadelphia where I had a wonderful art teacher who had been a student of Louis Finkelstein, Jane Piper and Mercedes Matter. Also, in fifth grade, we had art history. Each week, for the first 15 minutes every morning, before class really started, we learned about a different artist. The teacher posted a reproduction of one work by the artist above the blackboard. By the end of the year there were pictures all the way around the room. We learned about many artists, including El Greco, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, and Norman Rockwell.
This opened up a whole new world to me. It made history so much more interesting. In high school, I used to cut school. At first I went to the museums, but then I started going to galleries. At one gallery I saw a show of Jane Piper’s work. I wrote her a letter asking if I could see her studio. Looking back, I am amazed that she said yes, but she was open to it, and I kept going back. I was 16. I helped her stretch canvases. She would show me her paintings and ask, “What do you think I should do to this?” I learned a lot from looking at her paintings, trying to figure out what I would do to them, and then seeing what she would ultimately do. It almost never was what I suggested.
JS: You also became involved with Berthe Morisot’s work as a scholar at an incredibly young age. What drew you to Morisot?
BS: I really love Berthe Morisot’s painting. To me, she is the key colorist of the Impressionist group, and sort of the expressionist too. When I was a kid, my father gave me a book that had a painting of hers reproduced in it. There was also a painting at the Philadelphia Museum that I would go see. I had seen other Morisots in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection. So, at age 14, I started trying to find her work and wrote people letters, very naïvely.
Somebody told me to write to her grandson, who lived in Paris. I wrote to him, and met two of her three grandsons. I visited them in France and saw wonderful, completely unfamiliar, paintings. I ended up staying many times with one of her grandsons in the house where she had lived. It was full of paintings — Morisot, Manet, Monet, and Renoir — several of which still hung in almost the same positions on the walls as when she was alive.
It was extraordinary. It paralleled my experience with visiting the Barnes Foundation, where the work hardly existed in reproduction, and certainly not in color. When I would leave and think of Morisot’s paintings later, or go to the Barnes and think about those paintings later, I didn’t always remember the painting specifically, but I remembered how I felt looking at them. It was a vastly different emotional experience than the one I have when holding a color reproduction in my hand.
I found that the memory of the experience of seeing and observing was as important as the physical experience of standing in front of a painting.
JS: You studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and Ben Kamihira was one of your teachers. What did he talk about?
BS: Ben Kamihira’s studio at the Pennsylvania Academy was down the hall from mine. He would invite me into his studio for 10 or 15 minutes at the end of the day about four times a week to see his paintings and how they progressed. He worked very much like Jane Piper, in that he was continually changing and revising his work. He would draw with white paint or white chalk—over an area I felt was already perfect—and start changing something. Neither of them had any fear of ruining what was in front of them. His mark gave everything such a presence; there was a trust and a certainty to it. Seeing the paintings-in-progress was completely visual and, as such, a better education than anything he could have ever said to me.
When teaching and visiting studios, people often expect you to come in the door talking. I want to go in and see what’s there. A few times I have said, “I don’t know what to say, and I don’t want to just talk. May I have permission to look, and we will talk about it later?” I love what Mario Naves once wrote in a review: “When the visual peters out the verbal begins.” Let’s speak, but let’s look first.
JS: How did you meet Joan Mitchell, who became an important friend and mentor to you?
BS: I was living in Paris and I wanted to visit a Joan Mitchell exhibition that I had heard about. It turned out the folks at the gallery were still installing it when I walked in. Joan gave me a beer and I helped them hang a big painting, a quadriptych, called “The Good-bye Door” (1980) I remember as we lifted it I thought it weighed a ton.
Everyone was friendly; I suppose everyone is always friendly when you’re 22. I went to the opening and they took me out to dinner. Joan said, “Come to lunch next Thursday.” Thursday was my birthday, although of course Joan didn’t know that. I had been alone for two months and I was really lonely. So I took a chocolate cake out to Vétheuil, and had lunch with her and her houseguests.
It was on a property where Monet had lived and painted. If you looked out her windows and, if you knew Monet’s paintings, it was like seeing 28 paintings in a nanosecond. I was overcome by the history that was in front of me.
I lived there most of the following summer. But it became very bad, so I left. We later called a truce and were friends, and a few years later, she invited me back. On one of my final visits — a few years before she died — I painted there for two weeks and she gave me a key to her studio. I was in the studio in the daytime, and she was there at night. At night she would rearrange all my pictures the way she wanted them to be, in rows on the east studio wall. Later, I thought her rearrangement of my little paintings paralleled the structure of her “Field” paintings, which she made later that year and the next year.
I was doing little pieces with watercolor crayon and gouache, which were all based on what I saw out the window. She specifically recognized what every mark I made was based on, although each was very abstract. She would say, “This is that tree across the river. This is the tree in the neighbor’s yard. This is the road as it goes towards town. This is the road when it goes away from town.” I was stunned by that.
JS: Did you feel the same about her work; did you recognize the subject matter?
BS: Oh, yes. One day, there was a little cup with dahlias in the kitchen. She had a painting that she had done that night. I said, “Oh, it’s the dahlia.” I was right, but it almost cost me my head. When she would criticize someone’s work, she would sometimes say, “This part is too representational,” or, “This part isn’t felt. You’ve painted it but you are not present there.” When she was friendly and kind, she was the best person to talk to about painting. But she was also really rough going. She could rip everything to shreds and metaphorically slaughter people.
I remember once Joan barked at me, “There’s no morality in making a picture. It either works or it doesn’t.” For me, that was a brilliant line. I’ve known so many people who have rules, like using only this kind of medium or this kind of canvas or only earth colors. But it’s not going to work just because you mastered someone else’s prescription.
JS: You have joked that you are a “near-sighted realist.” I love that line. Can you talk about the associations and motifs that are present in your work? Are you looking at plants or considering specific landscapes when you work?
BS: I consider myself a realist. Not many other people do, but I do. The forms come and go like thoughts. I do have philodendrons in the studio, and a vase of fake flowers. I have a part of a wisteria vine that I sometimes paint from. I have a sculpture by a neighbor of mine; I use the shapes of it. My studio is on the third floor of my house and it looks over buildings. I use the vertical shapes of the distant windows and the horizontal rooflines. There are blocks of smaller buildings and blocks of larger buildings. I see where the trees cut across the roofline. I love it in the winter because the trees become a tangle of sinewy lines.
But the titles come later; they are not about when I painted them. They are about an association I have when I am looking at the paintings. So “Fitler Square Nocturne” (2014) felt like a small park near my house where I often sit, although I was not painting or drawing while I was sitting there. The yellow-orange of “The Last Days of August” (2015) felt like that time of year, although I probably painted it in December.
When it comes time, I title them all at once. I love Richard Shindell’s songs and look at the lyrics for inspiration and titles. In the studio, I listen to very representational music, with words, like Shindell, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Lucy Kaplansky, Martine Habib, and Mimi Fariña.
I think I paint bittersweet fictions. I don’t believe the imagery I paint exists. I am not so removed from the world that I think it is pleasant out there. I think it is close to awful. We are walking towards extinction. So, why wouldn’t I paint the Garden of Eden or something pleasurable? What am I going to gain, spiritually or emotionally, from painting something miserable? I would much rather live in a fantasy world. I want a kindness in the painting. I want there to be an emotional ease. Generally, I don’t feel that in life, so I want it to exist in the paintings.
There was a writer I loved named Paul Monette. I sent him a catalogue of my work, and I sheepishly apologized for it just being pretty or something. He wrote back, “By the way, they are beautiful. And never apologize for beauty. Whether one knows it or not, it is what everyone strives for.”
JS: Do you consider how the painters who were most significant in your life are all women, and why that might be?
BS: Perhaps there is something to that, but I don’t want to know the answer, because it is still good fuel. I once co-juried a show. There was a pink painting that was submitted. I didn’t think it was that good, but the other juror, a woman, wanted to put it in simply because it was by a man. I thought “So what?” She said, “Men don’t use or know how to use pink.” I thought, “I am going to do all these pink paintings because of this. I’ll show you.” I love the color pink. I painted the stairs to my basement pink, and I would love to paint a room pink.
So, as for those artists all being women, I have no idea. I think the painters I was drawn to were the best colorists around. They all used white in a beautiful way and they all had a beautiful touch. Although now I try to not use white because I think it became rote and an easy go-to solution, when I didn’t know what to do in a painting.
Sometimes I can just hear my painter friends or teachers saying, “Let’s just mix this with white, and make it a real color.” But I have learned an unimaginable amount from making color etchings. You don’t use white in making etchings. When I work in a new or unfamiliar medium I am forced to learn new things. Printmaking has given me permission to use a thinner application of paint and see the beauty in that.
JS: One of the things that struck me the most in your exhibition at Hollis Taggart is the variation across each painting, the way forms are approached with different kinds of marks – thinner and thicker areas, translucent and opaque. Is that something you think about?
BS: I was always afraid that my pictures looked like they were all painted with the same brush. I don’t want them to feel that way. Sometimes I make the analogy to getting a back massage. It is a question of whether there is a variation of touch, or the same pressure everywhere. I love the variation of touch.
JS: You’ve talked about some of the associations and motifs. I wonder how your work begins and what your studio process is like.
BS: When I paint, I usually don’t know what I’m going to do. It starts from nowhere. I work really well at night. At night it really comes out, because there is no thinking; my mind is empty. In the morning, when I return, there is thinking. That is when I can edit. I move a line over a quarter of an inch, I change the color, or the thickness or the density of the color. Then, for the rest of the day, I avoid it. I try to do anything but paint. There is that joke that most painters would rather clean under the refrigerator than go to the studio. I think that is true for me, and that there is a value in that.
Sometimes when I’m really stumped, I’ll walk over to the Philadelphia Museum and look at one or two things, and then walk home. It is just to get out of my own head. The walk over there and back home is very important, perhaps more so than the picture I’ve gone to visit. It’s like when one has a headache. I’ve been told it is the glass of water that gets rid of your headache, not the aspirin. There’s a point when I become too conscious. I’m not a Buddhist, but when I paint, I try to approach my painting with an empty mind.
To make anything, one fails – it’s an essential part of the process. The best paintings, I believe, are the ones painted before the artist knows how to do them. Out of failure, you learn how to make something work. It is a process that can lead to possibilities not yet explored. That is something I love.
There is this beautiful quotation by Berthe Morisot. She’s having coffee at a corner café one morning and writes that as she looked out the window, she saw the pedestrians as they walked by with the beauty and simplicity that exists in Japanese prints. Of that moment, she wrote, “I realize why I’ve only painted badly my whole life and why I’ll never paint another bad painting again.” And then she concluded, “And to think that I’m 50 years old, and at least once a year I have this very same hope and this very same joy.” That is so reassuring. Those fleeting moments of clarity are, for me, what it’s all about.
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