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ROLPH SCARLETT


ROLPH SCARLETT L ISTEN WITH YOUR E YES

Foreword by

R OWLAND W EINSTEIN Personal Reflection by

S AMUEL E SSES Essay by

J UDITH N ASBY

W E I N S T E I N G A L L E RY 383 Geary Street • San Francisco • California 94102


Published by Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, on the occasion of the exhibition Rolph Scarlett: Listen with Your Eyes, March–April 2011. © 2011 Weinstein Gallery. All rights reserved. Essay by Judith Nasby © and courtesy of McGill-Queen’s University Press.

ISBN 978-0-9790207-2-8 Library of Congress Control Number 2011902433

Production and project direction by Briana Tarantino Edited by Jasmine Moorhead Artwork photography by Nick Pishvanov Designed by Linda Corwin, Avantgraphics Printed in the U.S.A. by California Lithographers

Weinstein Gallery 383 Geary Street San Francisco, California 94102 415-362-8151 www.weinstein.com

Paintings from The Samuel and Sandra Esses Collection of Rolph Scarlett are indicated by an asterisk.

Front cover: Opulence c.1955 Oil on canvas 761⁄4 x 56 inches Back cover: Abstraction c.1962 Oil on canvas 433⁄4 x 501⁄2 inches From the Douglas Bauer collection


R OLPH S CARLET T : L ISTEN WITH YOUR E YES

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olph Scarlett was a consummate explorer of twentieth-century abstract painting. Never afraid of trying new styles, curious and opinionated, constantly engaged with the world around him, Scarlett more than once proved to be at the artistic zeitgeist over five decades. After a chance encounter with Paul Klee in 1923, Scarlett took up abstraction with a fervor that never diminished during his long and impressive career. To create something that had never existed before: this was Scarlett’s great cause. This retrospective exhibition shows Scarlett for the true adventurer he was, steadily and creatively seeking out the pathways of abstract painting in all its guises and adding to its meaning in personal and profound ways. Born in Canada, Scarlett came of age in the American Midwest, and spent a few important years in the late 1920s in Hollywood, where he designed stage sets. His work from this early period echoes Klee’s use of color, his confidence in naïve, primitive forms, and his blend of abstraction and figuration. In its flat spatial qualities and its almost tribal-like biomorphic geometry it prefigures the Indian Space painters of the 1940s by a decade. He moved in 1933 to New York, where he continued to paint while working as a freelance stage and industrial designer. In 1938 Scarlett’s wife submitted a portfolio of her husband’s work to the Baroness Hilla von Rebay, the founding director of the new Museum of Non-Objective Painting (MNOP), then being established to house the collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim. Scarlett would be granted a scholarship, and Guggenheim would acquire over sixty works by Scarlett for his collection—more than any other artist outside of Rudolf Bauer and Vasily Kandinsky. During his association with the museum, which lasted for fourteen years, Scarlett honed his sensitive feel for bodies in space and capitalized on his trademark use of bright, vivacious colors into accomplished, perfectly harmonized geometric works. He was deeply influenced by Bauer, the German expatriate and one of the originators of non-objective painting in the teens.

When Bauer emigrated to the U.S. just before World War II, he wanted to meet Scarlett. The two became friends, and Bauer advised Scarlett on his work over the course of many years as he explored the “music” of non-objective painting. In fact, Scarlett in his regular lectures at the museum implored visitors to “listen with your eyes.” Scarlett and Rebay also had a close, important relationship, one in which he bore the brunt of her sometimes condescending, if motherly, critiques with tolerance and gratefulness. Eventually, though, he had to push back. In a letter from 1951 he wrote, “I have noticed with growing amazement that during the past three years you have accepted less and less of my work— and, that same work, which you rejected has been accepted and shown in the best and largest shows all over this country.”

Rolph Scarlett photographed at the Pasadena Playhouse by Johan Hagemeyer, 1929. Johan Hagemeyer Photograph Collection, courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

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The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, 1946, featuring Scarlett's Untitled (RS0403), c. 1937 (see p. 39 of the present volume). Courtesy of the Hilla von Rebay Foundation Archive. Solomon R. Guggenheim Archives, New York, NY.

This period did in fact correspond to Scarlett’s most critical success, and to a return to the expressionistic forms and characters of his pre-war work. At the same time, he found his own rhythm and complexity using a drip style similar to, though denser and more opaque than, the one made famous by Jackson Pollock, who had worked for many years as a framer at the MNOP when Scarlett was a lecturer and with whom he shared common influences. In 1949 he had a well received solo show at the Jacques Seligmann Gallery, reviewed very favorably in the New York Times: “The impression made by these paintings is one of originality and strength.” He was also included in a juried show, American Painting Today, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950 and in the Whitney Annuals of 1951 and 1952. The curator for the Whitney show in fact bypassed a selection of Scarlett’s careful geometrics in favor of a new “lyrical” drip painting— one which he described as having had “a helluva good time” making. Rebay felt this loss of control very keenly in one of her letters to Scarlett: “So your way ended in the horrid jungle it is in now; even a Mr. Pollock’s smearage was

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not bad enough for you to have a try at; and betraying yourself, you betrayed art and my faith in you, and my present disgrace by my failure to foresee such an outrageous possibility—since you even paint objectively now.” Yet despite the fact that he was moving in his own direction, when a change in leadership took place at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and Rebay and the work she had championed were forced out, Scarlett was hit hard. He understood this change rightly as a personal betrayal by the establishment. Scarlett remarked, “I considered them my life’s best work. . . this caused me great financial hardship, loss of prestige, and loss of artistic recognition.” Scarlett eventually decided to move to the artists’ community of Shady, New York, just outside of Woodstock. He remained committed to abstract painting and continued to explore new techniques, teach students, and push the limits of abstract expressionism with more primitive and figurative imagery. Scarlett also began designing jewelry, the trade to which his father had apprenticed him as a teenager. He had small exhibitions from time to time, but mostly settled down to regional obscurity.


In 1975 Samuel Esses, a New York collector, rediscovered the then 87-year-old artist. Esses was a successful businessman and an avid collector. He always sought out that which was unusual and like Scarlett was ahead of his time in many ways. For example, in 1979, Esses became enthralled with the early graffiti appearing on the New York subway trains. He established “The Graffiti Workshop,” a painting warehouse for graffiti artists to work in a studio, collaborate, and paint on canvas, with the sole goal of preserving these groundbreaking yet short lived works of art. The biggest names of graffiti writing participated—Futura, Crash, Dondi, Zephyr, and Daze, to name a few—and it provided critical validation at an important time for this alternative form of abstraction, laying the foundation for the acceptance of artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is not a stretch to say that what Esses saw in the graffiti art of the 1970s was very similar to what he saw in 1950s-era Scarletts— something raw, honest, and melding many twentieth century influences into one unique form.

essay on the life and work of Rolph Scarlett (see p. 120) has been included from Judith Nasby, noted art historian, curator, and author of Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, and Jeweller, as well as a fond remembrance of the artist by Sam Esses himself (p.6). In spite of his self-imposed obscurity over the past half-century, Rolph Scarlett’s paintings are represented in numerous significant museum collections including the Guggenheim (which still owns over 30 works), the Smithsonian Institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (from the important Leslie Collection), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It is our sincere honor to bring you the first comprehensive retrospective of the paintings of Rolph Scarlett, and it is our hope that once this collection is shown to a larger public, Scarlett will be recognized, as he was by Hilla Rebay, as one of the “greatest artists of our time.”

ROWLAND WEINSTEIN Weinstein Gallery

Scarlett was certainly not actively looking for another patron, but these two men recognized each other as kindred spirits and soon Sam was invited to see all the paintings Scarlett had locked away from the art world of museums and galleries he no longer trusted. Sam amassed one of the most comprehensive and definitive collections of paintings by Rolph Scarlett, one that not only brings to light the importance of the artist’s trajectory, but chronicles a history of abstraction in America. This current exhibition was organized over a four year period and includes over 160 works of art. It presents for the first time the magnificent Samuel and Sandra Esses Collection of the work of Rolph Scarlett, acquired by Weinstein Gallery. As Scarlett’s late, great patron, Samuel Esses had a contagious enthusiasm for this exhibition and a high standard of expectation for the legacy of his dear friend as well as his collection. Unfortunately, during the planning of this exhibition, Mr. Esses passed away. The gallery remains inspired by the importance of the collection and the passion of the collector. In addition, other paintings of importance were obtained to provide the most complete survey of the artist’s career to date. A comprehensive

Video stills of Rolph Scarlett at his home in Shady, New York, featured in the documentary “Who Is Rolph Scarlett?” by Harriet Tannin, 1980.

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Rolph Scarlett, c. 1980s. Photograph by Harriet Tannin.

M Y F RIENDSHIP WITH R OLPH S CARLET T Samuel Esses (1929–2008)

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first discovered Rolph Scarlett in late 1975 at the Jaro Gallery on Madison Avenue during its show of sculptured jewelry. Passing the front window I became transfixed and must have been there for quite a while engrossed in the Scarlett jewelry display, because the gallery sales lady came out and invited me in. She told me that Scarlett was a famous artist with over sixty artworks in the Guggenheim Museum collection, and that he was a very important artist, to which I replied, “I never heard of him.”

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Once inside I made a list of the pieces of jewelry I liked most, exchanged cards, and left. The owner called me the next day and asked me to come in that Saturday, which my wife, Sandra, and I did, and we bought almost all of the jewelry in the exhibition. Over the next month or so we purchased quite a collection. Wanting to meet Rolph and possibly add to the collection, we decided to go to Woodstock, for during that time I was recuperating from an illness and thought it a good idea to take a few days off and enjoy a nice weekend.


One of my most cherished memories is my first meeting with Rolph. We arrived at his house, knocked on the door and had to wait quite awhile until a loud voice asked who was there. When I told him that I was the guy who bought his jewelry from the Jaro Gallery, the door flew open and we both stood there face to face, staring at each other. He knew, somehow, that I understood who he was and appreciated his work, and I knew that he knew I knew. He opened his arms and we hugged in one of those rare moments of complete recognition and understanding. That was the beginning of a very long and trusting friendship. After meeting with Rolph and his wife, Emily, and exchanging many stories, we headed back to NYC deciding we had to come back to Woodstock again. As we were leaving Woodstock, by some mysterious act of fate, we met a couple who wanted to rent their house. The beauty of the place and the “artiness” of the town was a welcome change from the rough and tumble of Manhattan. When we got home and discussed it, we decided to “go for it,” and we rented the house for six months for weekend use. That was the start of a great adventure for us. Beginning in March of 1976, we would pack our station wagon with the kids and head to Woodstock. Our spontaneous few days turned into a six-month stay. During this period Rolph and I would meet in his studio garage each weekend. I would arrive with a bottle of Port, and he would take out bundles and bundles of drawings, which we went through, and which we discussed. Then we would negotiate price. Over time I accumulated an enormous amount of work, which was a fantastic and rare collection, and finally the work he wanted to show me was exhausted. I should have been grateful and satisfied by the work I’d chosen but I was not. I had this persistent feeling something was missing, that there was more to Rolph than what was shown to me. The juice behind the jewelry, the range and variety of his work had to have a “source.” Somehow things just did not add up or feel complete to me. One weekend I put the question to

him; I said, “Rolph, where are your real paintings, the real Rolph Scarlett, the stuff, the juice behind all you have shown me?” Rolph pouted, grumbled, and got up and left the room. A week later I received a call from his grandson Peter. He was going to take me to see some paintings hidden in a farmhouse garage outside of town. When we got there, he pointed to a rickety ladder that led to this loft above the farm wagons. Climbing up led to the most amazing sight. Paintings and canvases all over the place, wooden crates with paintings on the floor and against the walls. I thought, “Eureka! I have struck the mother lode, a veritable treasure trove!” This was it. He had kept them hidden all these years, private to himself, feeling they would not be understood or appreciated. Also, during that time he was still basking in his “Guggenheim Glory Days,” a period during which he enjoyed great prominence. It was an important part of his earlier life. And he was trying to hold onto those memories and his reputation, all quite understandable and human. As my relationship with Rolph deepened it became apparent that somehow I was destined to be the caretaker and custodian of the majority of his life’s work. For years I have stored my painting collection waiting until I felt the public would be ready to accept them and I believe that time has come. Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco has acquired The Samuel and Sandra Esses Collection of Rolph Scarlett paintings. These works represent examples of Scarlett’s lifelong quest to reach the infinite and the extraordinary. His everstretching imagination sought new directions and new forms of expression. The paintings are totally, uniquely Scarlett. They touch all aspects of art, from the early 1920s modern period, cubist, surrealist, nonobjective, abstract expressionist, to his later linear expressionist and representational work. You will find some whimsical, humorous, fanciful, and fantastic. Others are incomprehensible, uncanny, and provoking. But every one is intriguing and fascinating. The paintings chosen for this show represent the essential and true Rolph Scarlett.

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Untitled (RS0246)* c.1918 Oil on board 48 x 54 inches

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Village* c.1920 Oil on canvas 28 x 36 inches

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Red Bridge c.1920 Oil on canvas 20 x 26 inches

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Landscape with Trees c.1925 Oil on canvas 24 x 20 inches

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Untitled (RS0318)* c.1923 Oil on canvas 36 x 30 inches

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Cubist* c.1923 Oil on canvas 26 x 20 inches

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Birds c.1926 Oil on canvas 39 x 53 inches

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Mother and Child c.1926 Oil on canvas 471â „2 x 36 inches

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Untitled (RS0240)* c.1926 Oil on canvas 24 x 36 inches

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Untitled (RS0241)* c.1926 Oil on canvas 353â „4 x 55 inches

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Untitled (RS0070)* c.1926 Oil on canvas 40 x 54 inches

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Untitled (RS0247)* c.1928–32 Oil on canvas 32 x 42 inches

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Untitled (RS0304)* c.1928 Oil on canvas 39 x 48 inches

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Untitled (RS0316)* c.1928 Oil on canvas 35 x 28 inches

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Fantasy* c.1928 Oil on canvas 28 x 36 inches

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Untitled (RS0251)* c.1928 Oil on canvas 36 x 28 inches

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Untitled (RS0242)* c.1928 Oil on canvas 27 x 36 inches

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Untitled (RS0181)* c.1928 Oil on canvas 38 x 27 inches

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Untitled (RS0239)* c.1929 Oil on canvas 38 x 33 inches

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Untitled (RS0178)* c.1929 Oil on canvas 33 x 34 inches

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Untitled (RS0079)* c.1930 Oil on canvas 30 x 30 inches

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Untitled (RS0413) c.1930 Oil on canvas 17 3â „4 x 24 inches

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Phantasmagoria* c.1930 Oil on canvas 48 x 40 inches

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Nightmare* c.1930 Oil on canvas 54 x 40 inches

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Untitled (RS0180)* c.1929–32 Oil on canvas 33 x 36 inches From the Douglas Bauer collection

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Eve* c.1932 Oil on canvas 36 x 23 inches

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This page, top Untitled (RS0348)* c.1930s Oil on canvas 17 x 16 inches bottom Untitled (RS0270)* c.1930s Oil on canvas 13 x 19 inches

Opposite page, top left Untitled (RS0351)* c.1930s Oil on canvas 19 x 123⁄4 inches top right Untitled (RS0349)* c.1930s Oil on canvas 161⁄2 x 121⁄2 inches bottom left Untitled (RS0345)* c.1930s Oil on canvas 101⁄2 x 81⁄2 inches bottom right Untitled (RS0281)* c.1930s Oil on canvas 15 x 15 inches

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Livery* c.1934 Oil on canvas 343â „4 x 44 inches

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Untitled (RS0327)* c.1934 Oil on canvas 46 x 34 inches

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Appassionata c.1937 Oil on canvas 481â „4 x 501â „4 inches From the Douglas Bauer collection Former collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Untitled (RS0403) c.1937 Oil on canvas 46 x 50 inches Former collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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top Untitled (RS0003) c.1938 Oil on board 26 x 74 inches bottom Abstraction XI* c.1939–40 Oil on canvas 36 x 26 inches Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Museum purchase, Harriet and Maurice Gregg Fund for American Abstract Art, The Harriet and Maurice Gregg Collection of American Abstract Art.

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Shulim* c.1945 Oil on canvas 23 x 28 inches

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Untitled (RS0408) c.1940 Oil on canvas 39 x 36 inches

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Untitled (RS0398) c.1940 Oil on canvas 281â „8 x 23 inches

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Untitled (RS0382) c.1943 Oil on canvas 231â „4 x 30 inches

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Untitled (RS0412) c.1943 Oil on canvas 35 x 33 inches

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Random Structure c.1945 Tempera on paper on board 181â „2 x 181â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0433) c.1945 Oil on canvas 42 x 211â „4 inches

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Untitled (RS0338)* c.1946 Oil on canvas 30 x 36 inches

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Blue and Gray Forms No.1* c.1947 Oil on canvas 435⁄8 x 491⁄2 inches Former collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Pon-de-tu* c.1948 Oil on canvas 495⁄8 x 361⁄8 inches

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Scherzo* c.1948 Oil on canvas 413⁄4 x 431⁄2 inches

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Enigma* c.1948 Oil on canvas 483⁄4 x 361⁄2 inches

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Plexus* c.1948 Oil on canvas 331⁄2 x 59 5⁄8 inches

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Untitled (RS0409) c.1948 Oil on canvas 341⁄4 x 431⁄4 inches

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Untitled (RS0406) c.1948 Oil on canvas 34 x 481â „4 inches

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Untitled (RS0244) c.1949 Oil on masonite 48 x 43 inches

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Syllabus* c.1950 Oil on panel 36 x 48 inches

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Abstraction I* c.1949 Oil on canvas 46 x 58 inches

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Untitled (RS0320)* c.1950 Oil on board 48 x 36 inches

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Untitled (RS0411) c.1950 Oil on masonite 24 x 36 inches

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Spontaneity* c.1950 Oil on panel 351â „2 x 471â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0329)* c.1950 Oil on masonite 48 x 24 inches

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Untitled (RS0362) c.1950 Oil on masonite 24 x 24 inches

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Abstraction c.1950 Oil on board 181â „4 x 25 inches

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Black Drip c.1951 Oil on board 343⁄4 x 227⁄8 inches

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Untitled (RS0392) c.1951 Oil on canvas 28 x 38 inches

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Untitled (RS0315)* c.1951 Oil on canvas 35 x 40 inches

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Lyrical Green* c.1951 Oil on wood panel 333⁄4 x 413⁄4 inches

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Untitled (RS0083)* c.1952 Oil on masonite 357â „8 x 25 inches

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Monastery* c.1951 Oil on panel 22 x 28 inches

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Sunday* c.1951 Oil on canvas 42 x 57 inches

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Labyrinth* c.1952 Oil on canvas 42 x 52 inches

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Untitled (RS0238)* c.1952 Oil on masonite 48 x 24 inches

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Untitled (RS0198) c.1952 Oil on board 353â „8 x 48 inches

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Untitled (RS0325)* c.1954 Oil on heavy card 36 x 23 inches

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Untitled (RS0331)* c.1952 Oil on canvas 24 x 20 inches

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Untitled (RS0333)* c.1952 Oil on masonite 30 x 39 inches

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Untitled (RS0237)* c.1952 Oil on masonite 48 x 23 inches

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Untitled (RS0243)* c.1952 Oil on masonite 48 x 273â „4 inches

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Untitled (RS0323) * c.1952 Oil on masonite 261â „2 x 48 inches

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Untitled (RS0383) c.1953 Oil on board 40 x 30 inches

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Plentitude* c.1953 Oil on canvas 74 x 58 inches

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Untitled (RS0324)* c.1953 Oil on board 48 x 381â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0284)* c.1953 Oil on canvas 22 x 161â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0319)* c.1953 Oil on masonite 48 x 32 inches

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Untitled (RS0302)* c.1953 Oil on masonite 481â „2 x 481â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0307)* c.1953 Oil on masonite 48 x 48 inches

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Abstraction III* c.1953 Oil on canvas 37 x 55 inches

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Untitled (RS0306)* c.1953 Oil on board 48 x 381â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0414) c.1953 Oil on canvas 30 x 40 inches

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Renegade* c.1953 Oil on canvas 54 x 541â „4 inches

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Untitled (RS0364) c.1952 Oil on masonite 24 x 24 inches

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Untitled (RS0300)* c.1954 Oil on canvas 48 x 38 inches

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Untitled (RS0321)* c.1953 Oil on masonite 48 x 42 inches

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Untitled (RS0298)* c.1956 Oil on masonite 48 x 60 inches From the Douglas Bauer collection

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Opulence* c.1955 Oil on canvas 761â „4 x 56 inches

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Shaman* c.1955 Oil on canvas 70 x 74 inches

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White Orbit* c.1955 Oil on panel 453â „8 x 48 inches

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Birds* c.1955 Oil on canvas 355⁄8 x 431⁄2 inches

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Untitled (Black Vessel) c.1955 Oil on board 30 x 28 inches

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Abstraction IV* c.1955 Oil on panel 64 x 48 inches

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Rendezvous* c.1956 Oil on canvas 60 x 641â „2 inches

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Untitled (RS0299)* c.1956 Oil on panel 591â „2 x 48 inches

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Homage to Hans Hofmann c.1958 Oil on canvas 22 x 48 inches

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Abstraction VII* c.1958 Oil on canvas 36 x 48 inches

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Reach c.1960 Oil on canvas 36 x 50 inches

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Abstraction c.1962 Oil on canvas 26 x 32 inches

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Untitled (RS0018) c.1960 Oil on panel 48 x 36 inches From the Douglas Bauer collection

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Abstraction c.1962 Oil on canvas 433⁄4 x 501⁄2 inches From the Douglas Bauer collection

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Abstraction c.1962 Oil on canvas 45 x 45 inches

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Untitled (RS0263) c.1962 Oil on panel 48 x 45 inches

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Geometric Abstraction c.1958–62 Oil on board 30 x 36 inches

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Abstraction c.1964 Oil on canvas 42 x 50 inches

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Wandering Eye c.1964 Oil on canvas 413â „4 x 50 inches

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The City c.1964 Oil on canvas 44 x 50 inches

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Checkerboard Abstraction c.1964 Oil on canvas 42 x 50 inches

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Untitled (RS0435) c.1964 Oil on canvas 301â „2 x 45 inches

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Lost Convergent Point c.1965 Oil on canvas 38 x 50 inches

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Untitled (RS0371) c.1965 Oil on masonite 25 x 24 inches

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R OLPH S CARLET T Judith Nasby

Excerpted by permission with minor adaptation and additions from Nasby, Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, Jeweller (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004).

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anadian artist Rolph Scarlett had a remarkable seventy-five-year career in the United States as a painter, designer, and jeweler. A dedicated modernist, he successfully fused multiple artistic practices into a single vision. As a painter, inspired by his association with European avant-garde artists at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York, he explored geometric abstraction. The museum, later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, purchased sixty of his paintings and works on paper during the 1930s and 1940s.

Rolph Scarlett, c. 1950.

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Rolph Scarlett’s multi-faceted career began in his formative years in Guelph, Ontario, where he was born in 1889. He expressed an early interest in art, which his grandmother encouraged by giving him a paint box and some rudimentary instructions. He received a good basic knowledge of drawing techniques, perspective, and color theory through the extracurricular classes for students who showed talent in the visual arts. By age thirteen, Scarlett had completed his formal education, graduating from St. George Public School in 1902. Although he wanted to become an artist, his father discouraged the idea and arranged a jewelry apprenticeship for him with his uncle’s business enterprise, W.A. Clark Jewelry. During his four-year apprenticeship, he mastered jewelry design, fabrication, settings, and knowledge of gems, as well as watch making and repair. Scarlett continued to develop his drawing and painting skills, teaching himself by copying old masterworks. By the age of eighteen, Scarlett could see few prospects for his future if he continued living in Guelph. He and a friend, Rupert Broadfoot, needed little encouragement to purchase a ten-dollar train excursion ticket to New York City. While Broadfoot returned to Guelph on schedule, Scarlett stayed on for four years, working in the jewelry business while pursuing his love of painting, even studying at the Art Students League. In 1912 Scarlett returned to Guelph with his wife, Ruth, and their son. During World War I, Scarlett did essential war work, employed in the manufacturing of shells and other armaments. He was rejected for military service because of flat feet and having to wear eyeglasses. Scarlett continued to work on his painting


ROLPH SCARLETT. Stage Design for Hoboken Blues, 1925. Gouache on board, 15 x 193â „8 inches. University of Guelph Collection, Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. Gift of the artist, 1977. Photo: Martin Schwalbe.

technique and, by the early 1920s, he began to explore formal compositions through architectural structures such as urban buildings, factories, and bridges, as seen in Red Bridge, c. 1920 (p. 10) and Village, c. 1920 (p.9). At the end of World War I, Scarlett returned to New York City where he produced drawings and paintings, like Cubist, c. 1923 (p.13), that emphasized geometric structure and cubist influences. In 1919 Scarlett was hired by the Omega Watch Company in a position that gave him an opportunity to travel. During a trip to Geneva in 1923, he met the famous Swiss modernist artist Paul Klee at a dinner hosted by the president of The Moser Watch Company. After the meal Klee was occupying himself by making small abstract sketches. When he learned that Scarlett was an artist, he encouraged him to try making some small spontaneous abstractions. Klee

expressed his belief that by observing the smallest interrelationship of forms one could draw conclusions about the nature of the universe. He also spoke of his interest in the fusing of art and science, an artistic concept that appealed to Scarlett, and he encouraged Scarlett to explore modernism. This chance encounter with Klee helped to solidify Scarlett’s ambition to move beyond the cubist approach of simplifying realistic subjects. Although Scarlett was employed full time in the jewelry trade, he had maintained an interest in stage design dating from his days in Guelph. He had abandoned the naturalistic theatrical sets of that time and adopted a more contemporary style to express the fast-paced jazz age of the 1920s. Geometric structure, vibrant colors, and collage were hallmarks of his stage designs, like Hoboken Blues, 1925 (above). This play was a

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comedy-satire produced in New York, and Scarlett’s design for it included images of skyscrapers, exotic cultural references to African masks and carving, cogs and wheels suggesting machines, and lightning bolts signifying the importance of electricity. A series of paintings executed in the 1920s, such as Untitled (RS0239), c. 1929 (p. 26) and Untitled (RS0180), c. 1929–32 (p.32), reveal a similar aesthetic of abstract figurative motifs arranged in angular compositions.

house’s presentation as a “brilliantly provocative experimental production.” Scarlett said that his designs for Man and Superman moved him “further into the non-objective world,” but he didn’t “realize it at the time.” 2 Among his paintings from the early 1930s were planar abstractions with comical anthropomorphic imagery like Phantasmagoria, c. 1930 (p. 30) and richly colored dimorphic abstractions like Untitled (RS0079), c. 1930 (p.28).

In 1926 Scarlett left New York and moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he worked in the jewelry trade and continued his painting practice. That year he submitted a pastel work titled Static to the annual juried exhibition of the Federation of Art Societies held at the Toledo Museum of Art. According to Scarlett, even though the jurors said they had never seen an abstract work before, they awarded it first prize.

In 1933 Scarlett moved to New York City. By 1935 he had established himself as a freelance designer. He recalled, “I designed everything from sofas to refrigerators, working for clients like Macy’s, other department stores, and various manufacturers.” 3 Scarlett’s most significant industrial design project was the one he created for the New York World’s Fair, which opened on April 30, 1939. He was hired to design the Bakelite Corporation’s display in the Industrial Science Building. During the fall of 1937, when Scarlett was in London working on guided missile designs at the request of the British War Office, his wife, Emily, submitted a portfolio of his paintings and drawings to Hilla Rebay, the art advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, in response to Rebay’s call for abstract artists. In 1937 Scarlett was painting flowing calligraphic abstractions on dark backgrounds like Untitled (RS0403), c. 1937 (p. 39). Rebay reacted positively to Scarlett’s work and in 1938 offered him a Guggenheim Foundation scholarship. The stipend was sufficient to allow Scarlett to paint full time.

In 1928 Scarlett had a solo exhibition of 150 paintings and works on paper at Columbia House in Toledo. He used titles like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Industrial Interior, and Vibrations of Lead to indicate his attempt to explore painting’s potential for expressing music and physical principles. The Toledo Sunday Times critic Arthur Peterson quoted Scarlett as saying, “The picture has provoked thought, and that is just what we modernists are striving for. Derision means nothing to the modernist. If a futuristic picture brings the casual gallery patron to an abrupt stop and forces him to spend five minutes in an attempt to discover what it is all about, the ends of modernism have been served.” 1 Scarlett viewed himself as a committed modernist who was attempting to depict technology, cosmic forces, and music. While in Toledo, Scarlett met his second wife, Emily Pollet. In 1929, after they were married, they moved to California. Scarlett found work designing naturalistic film sets in Hollywood. His first major contract was for D.W. Griffith’s films. He also became involved with the Pasadena Community Playhouse. He was hired as guest art director for their 1929 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman starring Harrison Ford, Sr., as Jack Tanner. Bob Young, critic for the Pasadena Star News, had high praise for Scarlett’s abstract constructionist sets, describing the Play-

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Rebay, who was born in Alsace, discovered the work of Vasily Kandinsky while studying art in Germany. She became deeply committed to the theory and practice of non-objective painting. During her association with Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin, she also met and fell in love with abstractionist Rudolf Bauer. Rebay shared with Kandinsky and Bauer the belief that the vocabulary of non-objective painting was the only vehicle for achieving inner knowledge of the intangible spirit world. In 1927 Solomon R. Guggenheim, a New York collector of old master paintings, commissioned Rebay to paint his portrait. Through their association, he gradually changed his collecting focus and became committed to non-objective painting. With his collection of


art rapidly filling his suite at the Plaza Hotel, he decided with Rebay’s encouragement to open the apartment at intervals for viewing and to lend the works to public exhibitions. In 1936 Guggenheim established a foundation on the basis of the collection; the foundation was then incorporated and empowered to open a museum.

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he collection, formally titled The Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings, was put on view as a permanent display with the opening of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting on June 1939 in rented galleries at 24 East 54th Street. In the same year, Hilla Rebay, who had assumed the directorship of the museum, encouraged Rudolf Bauer to come to New York from Germany. With Guggenheim’s financial backing, Rebay distributed monthly stipends in the form of scholarships to promising artists. She also purchased their work for the museum collection and included them in group exhibitions. Rebay was committed to encouraging young artists who were interested in geometric abstraction. She offered them part-time employment as guards, lecturers, janitors, and framers. Jackson Pollock was one of the artists who worked as a part-time framer. Scarlett wrote Rebay in 1939 requesting work as an educator: “I feel quite sure that, with my deep understanding and love of the whole field of non-objective painting, coupled with a native ability to convey my ideas and others, I could be of some real value at furthering a sympathetic comprehension of what it is all about.” 4 His effort was rewarded and he began working as a weekend lecturer at the museum, a position he held from 1939 through 1946.

her “greatest find.” Scarlett recalled that Guggenheim visited his studio a number of times, purchasing approximately sixty of his paintings for his private collection and about forty as gifts for friends. This was a period when Scarlett enjoyed financial security through his Guggenheim Foundation stipend and his industrial design work. The intellectual and emotional support derived from associating with Rebay and other non-objective painters stimulated his creativity.

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ebay encouraged Rudolf Bauer to mentor artists, like Scarlett, whose work in progress he critiqued. Scarlett felt that Bauer influenced his development as a painter by encouraging him and providing an open forum for discussion. He said of his mentor’s work, “Bauer’s paintings had seemed so aloof at first, so formidable in their ordered perfection and their peaceful beauty. . . .There was a mystery about them that baffled me.”5 Scarlett recalled that when he showed Bauer his small color studies, “Bauer never suggested or even hinted at anything that might alter the spirit of the study but, with uncanny sureness, he pointed out some detail, maybe only a shift in the position or size of an element, or a change in color or value of color.” 6 Rebay was deeply committed to advancing her vision of non-objective art, a vision rooted in her belief in the theosophical movement. Her commitment extended from the passion of her lectures to her critiques for emerging artists. Scarlett’s commitment to nonobjective art differed significantly from Rebay’s vision. He described his own artistic perspective in this way:

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etween 1938 and 1946, Guggenheim and Rebay purchased sixty paintings, monoprints, and gouache-on-paper works by Scarlett, the largest number by a single artist in the Guggenheim Museum Collection after Kandinsky and Bauer. The first painting acquired for the Guggenheim Collection was Composition, 1938–39 (opposite). Rebay included it in the museum’s 1939 inaugural exhibition titled Art of Tomorrow. Rebay also acquired paintings by Scarlett for her own collection, often referring to him as

ROLPH SCARLETT. Composition, 1938–39. Oil on canvas, 31 x 53 inches. From the Douglas Bauer collection. Purchased by the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939. Deaccessioned from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum c. 1995.

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director and maintained a regular correspondence with her for more than ten years.

A ROLPH SCARLETT. Brooch, c. 1940. Gold, 23⁄8 x 23⁄8 x 1⁄8 inches. Commissioned by Hilla von Rebay. Collection of the Harriet Tannin Estate. Photo: Allen Bryan.

“I’ve never been interested in theosophy or any other kind of metaphysics. I’m an atheist and materialist. We all come from a cosmic base. The underlying principle behind my work is an attempt to reach for universal order. The main thing is not spiritualism, it is aesthetics, order, form, color, and rhythm.” 7 In spite of not sharing Rebay’s spiritual leanings, Scarlett became a confidant of Rebay’s. It was her volatile nature that drove the vision of the museum and he no doubt valued their close association, though it was not without conflict. Scarlett recalled her threatening to cancel his Guggenheim Foundation scholarship in 1941 because she felt he did not sufficiently thank her and Solomon R. Guggenheim for visiting his studio. 8 In another uproar, in 1945, Scarlett was called to testify in a court case involving a lawsuit brought by Rudolf Bauer against Rebay for slander against Bauer’s wife.9 Rebay was successful in winning the trial. In spite of the tempestuous environment, Scarlett was sympathetic to Rebay and admired her accomplishments. Rebay also commissioned Scarlett to make a gold brooch (above). The brooch’s composition, a circle within a square, is a transposition of a non-objective painting onto jewelry. According to Scarlett, Rebay never took possession of the brooch because of an argument they had had and his rejection of her romantic inclinations towards him. Scarlett remained a close adviser to Rebay throughout her tenure as

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fter Solomon Guggenheim’s death in 1949, the museum was reoriented away from a singular focus on non-objective art towards a more general modernist approach. This change also led to the retirement of Rebay as director in 1952. There were other changes as well. As recorded by Louise Averill Svendsen, “draperies were taken down, walls were painted a pristine white, heavy gold frames removed in favor of no frames at all, and the paintings were catalogued and conserved.” 10 Perhaps most significantly, the museum’s name changed from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Scarlett felt that this major shift in the museum’s curatorial direction was a great disservice to Rebay’s and Guggenheim’s vision and to all the artists whose work had been collected and exhibited by the museum: “This caused me great financial hardship, loss of prestige, and loss of artistic recognition.” 11

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n spite of the dramatic swing from the adulation of Rebay and Guggenheim in the 1940s to virtual anonymity by the late 1950s, Scarlett never stopped painting. For him, non-objective painting was an

ROLPH SCARLETT. Untitled (RS0408), c. 1940. Oil on canvas, 39 x 36 inches.


ROLPH SCARLETT. Abstraction, 1946. Oil on canvas, 387⁄8 x 48 inches. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Lady Davis. Photo: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Christine Guest.

“expression of pure creation.” He wrote these words in the catalogue for an exhibition of contemporary American painting: “The searching non-objective artist does not turn to nature for inspiration or direction; rather he looks within himself, within his own soul, as he strives to cultivate that spark of inner vision which lies latent in all of us.” 12 Scarlett had firm ideas about the composition of a painting: “It’s where the last dot goes. That’s the most important thing. You may have the symphony complete with all its parts, but then comes the final note. Without that it’s not complete.” 13 It was his belief that the idea of the work was more important than the actual paint application. Scarlett admired Rudolf Bauer for his use of hardedged forms against a flat background. Scarlett’s

paintings from the early 1940s, such as Untitled (RS0408), c. 1940 (opposite and p.42), contain similar characteristics relying heavily on the repetition of parallel lines for impact, much as Scarlett’s streamlined industrial designs do, with an even surface that does not reveal any brushstrokes. Scarlett, however, was moving towards a freer and more open approach to painting as seen in Abstraction, 1946 (above). Scarlett referred to his paintings from the late 1940s and early 1950s as lyrical non-objectives because of the softeredged forms and the gradual blending of the motifs with the background, evidenced in works like Plexus, c. 1948 (p. 53). In their calligraphic lushness, these paintings are Scarlett’s reaction to the emergence of abstract expressionism. However, his agitated, gestural brushwork was his emotional response to the horrors of World War II. Paintings such as Scherzo, c. 1948 (p.51) and Syllabus, c. 1950 (p.57) are expressionistic

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in paintings that he called The Fantastics. He was perhaps influenced by several New York artists such as Arshile Gorky and Adolph Gottlieb, who in the 1940s were extending surrealist themes by incorporating references to archaic and Native American art. Scarlett’s paintings contained grotesque animals and humans as he sought to express his personal feelings about the “guts of life.” 14 Scarlett was also extending his own anthropomorphic imagery originally introduced into his work in the 1920s.

ROLPH SCARLETT. Madonna, c. 1926. Oil on canvas, 431⁄4 x 353⁄4 inches. University of Guelph Collection, Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. Gift of the artist, 1977.

and charged with emotion. The motifs are now fully integrated into the background, very much in keeping with the intensely individualistic paintings by action painters like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

The tragic death of the husband of Scarlett’s stepdaughter, killed in an automobile accident in 1951, prompted a strong emotional response in Scarlett which took form in deeply charged expressionist canvases. Some of his paintings depicted tortured women, grotesque portraits, and Madonna and Child subjects. An early painting, titled Madonna, c. 1926 (opposite) reveals his atheist and anti-clerical sentiments. In this work he depicts the Christ child adorned with concrete halos, wise men carrying gifts of mosaic stone blocks, and Joseph appearing distraught. Other works, such as Monastery, c. 1951 (p.70) and Sunday, c. 1951 (p. 71), appear to express the hopelessness of religion in solving world conflict.

In both 1951 and 1952 Scarlett was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual exhibition of contemporary painting. He titled the painting selected for the 1951 exhibition Agitation, signaling a change from his previous lyrical titles based on musical terms. Both paintings in the Whitney exhibitions were gestural creations in bold colors, incorporating drips of paint in a network of rhythmic lines, a technique championed by Jackson Pollock at the time. Scarlett completed a series of drip paintings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some, like Untitled (RS0329), c. 1950 (p. 62), are simple calligraphic drawings on plain backgrounds. This approach evolved into densely built-up compositions created by dripping many layers of different colors over an underlying grid structure, as seen in Labyrinth, c. 1952 (p.72). Around 1950 Scarlett also began to include aggressive jagged shapes and surrealist-inspired figurative motifs

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Scarlett with his stepdaughter Elizabeth Pollet, c. 1940.


forms that oscillate between receding and projecting from the picture plane, as evidenced in works like Lost Convergent Point, c. 1965 (p.118) and Untitled (RS0371), c. 1965 (p.119).

ROLPH SCARLETT. The Separations Resolved, c. 1962. Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches. University of Guelph Collection. Gift of the artist, 1977.

After his association with the Guggenheim Museum ended, Scarlett moved to Shady, near Woodstock, New York, in 1955. Woodstock had been an artists’ colony since the beginning of the twentieth century. His paintings from the late 1950s, such as Homage to Hans Hofmann, c. 1958 (p.104), employ broad, black brushstrokes over an underlying grid structure. By the early 1960s Scarlett returned to geometric abstraction, creating paintings with hard-edged flat forms and a heightened palette much like his Bauer-inspired works of the early 1940s such as Untitled (RS0018), c. 1960 (p.108), Untitled (RS0263), c. 1962 (p.111) and The Separations Resolved, c. 1962 (above). He also returned to the non-objective vocabulary of circles, squares, and triangles as primary compositional devices. In 1961 Scarlett returned with renewed vigor to creating jewelry which he had enjoyed doing periodically throughout his career. He used his skills to make unique pieces that are, essentially, wearable sculptures. He also applied to his jewelry the same aesthetic vision that underlies his paintings. Indeed, his jewelry extended his geometric abstraction into three dimensions. The color harmonies and interlocking lines and planes of his jewelry compositions reveal a direct link to his paintings. By the mid-1960s, Scarlett was painting brilliantly colored, three-dimensional geometric

Scarlett was a very prolific artist. His art was grounded in aesthetic principles, rather than divine inspiration, even though he did use terms like mysticism when discussing art. He summed up his approach to painting with these few words: “The problem is to create an organization from a few geometrical elements that is alive as to color and form, with challenging and stimulating rhythms, making full use of one’s emotional and intuitive creative programming yet keeping it under cerebral control, so that the finished work is a visual experience alive with mysticism, inner order, and intrigue grown into a world of art governed by aesthetic authority.” 15 Rolph Scarlett was a Canadian abstractionist who used a non-objective vocabulary as a vehicle for expressing his artistic vision. With his pluralist approach to what it meant to be an artist, he focused his intellectual and technical abilities on every artistic challenge he undertook. His art was a progression of ideas that united painting, design, and jewelry and were expressed through a lifelong commitment to exploring the possibilities of geometric abstraction. Judith Nasby is Director and Curator at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre; and Adjunct Professor, School of Fine Art and Music, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. NOTES 1. Arthur Peterson, “Modernist Painter’s Exhibit Is Riot of Shapes, Figure,” Toledo Sunday Times, 1926. 2. Scarlett, interview with Nasby, 1976. 3. Scarlett, interview with Nasby, 1976. 4. Letter from Scarlett to Rebay, April 8 1939, Hilla von Rebay Foundation Archive, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 5. Rolph Scarlett with Harriet Tannin, The Baroness, the Mogul and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum, (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2003), p. 31. 6. Ibid., p. 33. 7. Scarlett, interview with Nasby, 1976. 8. Letter from Scarlett to Rebay, September 28 1941, Hilla von Rebay Foundation Archive, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 9. Scarlett, The Baroness, the Mogul and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum, pp. 44–48. 10. Louise Averill Svendsen, “Brochure,” n.d., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 11. Scarlett, The Baroness, the Mogul and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum, p. 85. 12. Contemporary American Painting (exh. cat., University of Illinois, 1953), pp. 218–19. 13. Scarlett, The Baroness, the Mogul and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum, p. 39. 14. Roger Jellinek, “Rolph Scarlett—Twentieth Century Painter,” Canadian Art (May/June 1965), p. 25. 15. Scarlett, The Baroness, the Mogul and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum, p. 32.

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R OLPH S CARLET T C HRONOLOGY Compiled by Judith Nasby and Harriet Tannin

1889 Born June 13 in Guelph, Ontario. Lived at 33 Queen Street. His father, James, was employed at the Bell Organ Company, Guelph. 1900 Won Guelph Public School certificate of merit in drawing. 1901 Began art lessons with Sister Antoinette at Loretto Academy in Guelph. 1902 Completed formal education. Apprenticed to his uncle’s jewelry firm, W. A. Clark, in Guelph for 5 years. 1908 Left Guelph to live in New York and worked in the jewelry field. Studied at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase, John Sloan, and George Luks. Sold jewelry at various New York firms. While living in New York, he married his first wife, Ruth, and they had a son. Head of jewelry repair department at Marcus and Company on 5th Avenue. 1912 Returned to live in Guelph. 1914 Premiere of The Gay Pierrots. Involved in comic opera productions in Guelph. 1916 Worked on munitions production at the MasseyHarris Company. 1918 Worked for jewelry companies in Toronto, including P.W. Ellis. 1919 Moved to New York and worked in the commercial jewelry field. Employed by the Omega Watch Company. 1923 Traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where he met Paul Klee. 1924 Pursued his career as an artist and stage designer in New York. Worked as a freelance designer for engineering firms. 1926 Moved to Toledo. Exhibited in the Eighth Annual Exhibition of the Toledo Federation of Art Societies at the Toledo Museum of Art. Awarded first prize for modernist work. Painting Static was reviewed and illustrated in the Toledo Blade newspaper. 1927 Exhibited in the Ninth Annual Exhibition of the Toledo Federation of Art Societies at the Toledo Museum of Art. Mohr Art Galleries prize winner. Solo exhibition at Columbia House, Waterville (Toledo). Exhibited 150 paintings and works on paper. 1928 After divorcing his first wife, married Emily Smith Pollet, who had two daughters, Barbara and Elizabeth Pollet, from her marriage to artist Joseph Pollet. Member of the Art Klan Club of Toledo. Designed sets at the Stage Club for Trista, The Lady of the Weeping Willow and Christopher Morley’s East of Eden. Moved to Los Angeles. 1929 Made set designs in Hollywood for films by Pathe and films directed by D.W. Griffith. Art director for George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Pasadena Community Playhouse. 1930 Solo exhibition, Hagemeyer Studios, Pasadena, California.

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1932 Moved to Guelph and pursued his painting practice. 1933 Moved to Great Neck, Long Island. 1935 Joined Design Associates, working as a freelance stage and industrial designer. Designed sets for Radio City Music Hall, working with stage designer Albert Johnson. 1937 Produced guided missile designs for the British War Office, London. 1938 Awarded a Guggenheim Foundation scholarship from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). Part-time weekend lecturer from 1939 to 1946. Declined to renew his contract with Design Associates in order to accept a Guggenheim Foundation scholarship that allowed him to paint full time. 1939 The Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened, and the painting Composition by Scarlett was included in the opening exhibition Art of Tomorrow. 1940 Appointed as chief lecturer at the Museum of NonObjective Painting. Represented by the Modern Age Art Gallery, New York, and by the Galerie Charpentier, Paris. 1941 Began working part time as a designer and fabricator for Reliance Devices Inc. (later renamed the Swivelier Company Inc.). 1946 Resigned as part-time lecturer at the museum because of job responsibilities at the Swivelier Company. 1949 Solomon R. Guggenheim died. By 1952 the collecting and exhibiting focus of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting had changed to a more generalist approach. Scarlett lost his main source of income. Visiting lecturer and critic for 4 years through a Carnegie Scholarship Fund Grant at the College of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Illinois, Champaign, during the annual Festival of Contemporary Arts (also exhibited in 1950, 1951, 1953). Cover illustration on the 1951 exhibition catalogue. 1952 Lived on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. Taught painting at the Edgewater artists’ colony in Edgewater, Florida, for the next 7 winters. 1955 Moved to Shady, New York (near Woodstock). 1961 Focused on making jewelry and continued to paint and work as a freelance designer. 1962 Retired from the Swivelier Company. Taught painting in Madeira, Portugal. 1965 Became an American citizen. Roger Jellinek writes article on Scarlett for Canadian Art magazine. 1977 Donates fifty paintings and works on paper to the University of Guelph Collection. 1984 Dies in Kensington, New York, at age 95.


Rolph Scarlett: Listen with Your Eyes  

Rolph Scarlett exhibition catalogue published by Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco

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