I HAVE AN IMAGE OF WILLIAM SCHARF forever etched in my memory. An image or, more accurately, a short film. Bill, his wife Sally, his son Aaron, and I are at Tybee beach outside Savannah, Georgia. It is a hot day in the summer of 1971. We’ve been romping in the waves and actively enjoying all the pleasures of the beach. Then, without saying a word, Bill plunges through a cresting wave and starts swimming directly out to sea in a line perpendicular to the shore. And he keeps swimming, with perfect strokes; regular, muscular, impressively relaxed. After a few minutes, I voice my concern to Sally, who simply shrugs and tells me Bill loves to swim. Soon he is just a tiny speck on the ocean, almost indistinguishable from the small whitecaps of foam. And soon after that he disappears entirely.
I assume something is terribly wrong, but no one else seems the least bit disturbed, even though Bill has been gone a tremendously long time. Eventually, perhaps a half hour later—although it feels much longer—I again see his confident strokes slicing through the water toward the beach, the cadence unchanged, the pace unhurried. And my concerns are swept away. When he climbs from the water, it is without comment, and he conveys the sense that what he has just done is, indeed, not worthy of comment. Somehow it feels like he has never been gone, as if his sea voyage has happened outside time.
I share this story with you because it begins to convey Bill’s deep relish for life that was expressed equally by his remarkable actions and by the delightful twinkle in his eye. But even more, the memory captures essences of Bill Scharf in a realm slightly beyond where most encountered him: the determined independence, the self-navigated course, the competencies worn lightly, the solitary journey to places that few of us can even imagine, the quiet mastery, the deep personal connections that could be severed and rejoined again without notice.
All of these attributes were Bill Scharf to the core; they made you smile, they made you marvel, they made you shake your head in disbelief or occasional frustration. And I am certain that Bill would have been satisfied with any of those reactions, because his primary aim never was to please. Bill’s actions and words were always authentic and heartfelt, never tactical or shaped to curry favor. He pandered to no one.
Bill Scharf was a visionary artist, but I was no less fascinated by his mind. His keen eye was always active but contributed to synthesis that was broad and philosophical. He was an insightful reader of text, with a poet’s sense of the line and flow of language and of argument. And his wit could be as sharp as it was quick, most often delighting in mischief, rollicking in the as-if. Yet Bill never sought to impress you with his intelligence; when he offered a deeply considered thought or more lyrical impression, it was genuinely in the spirit of sharing. Knowledge, to him, was a communal asset.
He was a beloved teacher; his studio classes at the Art Students League were always fully attended. For more than twenty-five years, his students reaped the gleanings of his analytic eye while benefitting from his generosity of spirit and welcoming his insistence that they always find their own way. He brought that same generosity to his personal relationships. A decidedly quiet man, his few words made clear that, not only had he been listening, but that he understood—not simply what you had said, but understood you. If you were someone he loved, that understanding was deeply sympathetic, and if you were not, then that understanding was . . . less so.
Bill truly had no choice but to be an artist. He painted not so much for himself, but he was responsive only to himself. He did not paint or draw to show what he had seen or with any viewer in mind. His own mind was the scope of his artistic universe, the bounds and sphere of his creative thinking. This is not to say that he was unmoved by the world around him. Central Park was a necessary source of both quiet and stimulation every morning. And he devoured art like no one I have encountered. Scharf with art book in hand became a strange hybrid being, his self all but fused with the art in front of him as he processed the images into parts of himself.
Scharf, who came of age during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, remained doggedly his own man, employing abstraction and expressionist means in the service of a style more deeply rooted in surrealism and symbolism. A virtuoso with a brush and pen, Scharf created works striking for both their resplendent color and bold gestural elements. But he was also a profoundly scholarly painter, drawing omnivorously upon symbols and themes from across art history as well as literature and distilling them into studiously balanced wholes.
His method was an unusual admixture of unconstrained freedom and discipline. His time in the studio could consist of open-ended sketching, quick execution of small-scale works, a day spent with a book that had caught his attention, or a ceaseless quest to find and note every four-letter word in the English language (and not simply the profane ones). Other days he focused work on a major canvas whose content seemingly had no precursor. But behind every one one of those canvases were drawings and sketches and studies, with initial attempts often lying in layers underneath the current surface, as if he were charting, in successive approximations, some great cosmic plan. There was rigor behind those visions. His day, similarly, was strictly bounded—in the park by six in the morning, home in time for dinner. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Yet, for Bill Scharf, the studio existed outside time.
Art took several forms for Bill, but at heart, despite those unforgettable, deeply impregnated pigments, it was drawing that was his prime métier. Even in his most expansive canvases, with their frequent drips and flicks, the power of line can be felt behind every gesture. No one who had a meal with Bill needs to be convinced of this—the dozens of ink- or graphite-covered napkins that covered the table before the entrée had even arrived attested to that preoccupation.
And yet it is the paintings that remain inscribed in memory, as he took those drawn elements to previously unglimpsed expressive ends. Scharf’s paintings feel like visitations; ideas that appear as if from outside ourselves only to resonate inside with persistent echoes of the familiar. His artworks bring into sharp relief objects, artifacts, phenomena that remain hazily on the edge of our consciousness. Realms otherwise barely perceived are now manifest before us, their brilliant colors belying the certainty that they will yet remain forever elusive. All of this is achieved with the hand of a master and the sleight of hand of a magician, as he keeps us unaware that he is making us cognizant of things we already know.
Bill’s wife, Sally, recently asked me if I thought his art was spiritual. While I answered with a cautious “yes,” I was not wholly convinced that “spiritual” quite captured the essence. Reflection has moved my assessment of his work from spiritual to mystical, with its elements of otherworldly mystery that induce the viewer to search for meaning. And yet I remained uncertain about what distinguished the two until I looked again at two of his finest paintings, Pink Annunciation, 1985, and The Un-Altar, ca. 1990. They made the distinction clear: The spiritual in art speaks to our souls. William Scharf’s art comes from a place before we had souls.
Christopher Rothko is a writer, psychologist and, along with his sister, Kate, steward of the Rothko legacy.