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William Scharf: Elemental Color, Works from the 50s and 60s

Viewing room
16 March - 4 April 2020

Scharf's style developed into something immediately recognizable

This exhibition brings together work by New York School painter William Scharf, focusing on a formative period for the artist between 1953 and 1969, during which he developed a friendship with Mark Rothko. Scharf first met Rothko in 1953 and in the 1960s assisted Rothko with his renowned commission for the De Menil Chapel in Houston. They remained close until Rothko’s death in 1970. Both artists shared an interest in the expressive, emotive and symbolic properties of color as well as a fascination with mythology, philosophy, and the concept of the primordial.

 

Coming of age in the heyday of New York's Surrealist and Abstract-Expressionist movements, Scharf's style developed into something immediately recognizable, a unique combination of visual transcendence and quiet moments of beauty. Potent symbols - the egg, the eye, the cross - recur throughout his oeuvre, teaching viewers to see his paintings as part of a larger fabric of universal mythos, even as a conduit to an understanding of those omnipresent ideas.

 

Along with symbols, color was Scharf’s most powerful tool to convey ideas using the language of abstraction. In Top Sphinx, crimson, fiery orange, black, cobalt blue, and turquoise color fields evoke sentiments of tension and...

This exhibition brings together work by New York School painter William Scharf, focusing on a formative period for the artist between 1953 and 1969, during which he developed a  friendship with Mark Rothko. Scharf first met Rothko in 1953 and in the 1960s assisted Rothko with his renowned commission for the De Menil Chapel in Houston. They remained close until Rothko’s death in 1970. Both artists shared an interest in the expressive, emotive and symbolic properties of color as well as a fascination with mythology, philosophy, and the concept of the primordial.

 

Coming of age in the heyday of New York's Surrealist and Abstract-Expressionist movements, Scharf's style developed into something immediately recognizable, a unique combination of visual transcendence and quiet moments of beauty. Potent symbols - the egg, the eye, the cross - recur throughout his oeuvre, teaching viewers to see his paintings as part of a larger fabric of universal mythos, even as a conduit to an understanding of those omnipresent ideas.

 

Along with symbols, color was Scharf’s most powerful tool to convey ideas using the language of abstraction. In Top Sphinx, crimson, fiery orange, black, cobalt blue, and turquoise color fields evoke sentiments of tension and cohesion and appear laden with allusive, enigmatic meanings. In Untitled, 1962, pink, egglike forms at the center of the composition glow against a field of black, earthy brown, and dark blue, evoking notions of fertility, creation, and the eternal lifecycle.

 

Scharf's style crystalized during this period, as evidenced in a series of small canvases from the mid-1960s first shown at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Works such as Lid's Night, 1964 distill free-flowing brushwork into discrete vignettes of glowing form, each emerging from the shadowed plane like a luminescent creature from the quiet depths. These forms coalesce into compositions that function like contained ecosystems, small aquarium glimpses into a larger, grander and more wonderful world.

 

For more information on this online presentation please contact us at 212.628.4000 or info@hollistaggart.com.

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Top Sphinx, 1956, Oil on canvas, 43 x 59 inches
Boxed Galaxy, 1957, Gouache on paper, 4 3/4 x 5 1/4 inches
Amangasett, 1964, Gouache on paper, 7 x 11 inches
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William Scharf, Media, PA, 1950s. Courtesy of the William Scharf family.
William Scharf, Media, PA, 1950s. Courtesy of the William Scharf family.

"Scharf's technique is formidable, a rare combination of precision and gesture."

— Christopher Rothko, catalog essay "William Scharf: Imagining the Actual", 2016

William Scharf in front of Franz Kline's Garcia (1957) at MoMA, August 1959. Courtesy of the William Scharf family.
William Scharf in front of Franz Kline's Garcia (1957) at MoMA, August 1959. Courtesy of the William Scharf family.

"A function of his age and also his boldly colorful "all-over" style of painting, Scharf has often been bundled with the Abstract Expressionists. He knew most of them, was friendly with several and was particularly close to my father, Mark Rothko (indeed, he and his wife were perhaps my parents' closest friends in the 1950s and 60s). And yet, it can hardly be said he paints like any of them. His work is abstracted, not abstract, and his color has an immediacy and intensity not found in any of their work."

— Christopher Rothko, catalog essay "William Scharf: Imagining the Actual", 2016

William Scharf, Tybee Island, GA, late 1960s. Courtesy of the William Scharf family.
William Scharf, Tybee Island, GA, late 1960s. Courtesy of the William Scharf family.

"William Scharf's artwork is the remarkable offspring of a marriage between unbounded physical gifts and the questing mind of a poet/philosopher. His mystical language takes us to questions of origins, to a place where words break down to more amorphous thought, and those thoughts to instincts."

— Christopher Rothko, catalog essay "William Scharf: Imagining the Actual", 2016

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The Hen Lady, 1969, Gouache on paper, 17 1/2 x 12 5/8 inches
Lid's Night, 1964, Oil on paper mounted to board, 12 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches
Whale Place, 1964, Oil on paper mounted to board, 12 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches
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