Rolph Scarlett joined the quest for a pure art so independent of the everyday world that it couldn’t even be called “abstract.”
Long before the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, bringing modern art to the masses and putting its stamp on the skyline of New York, there was another Guggenheim museum. It was called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and while it didn’t carry the family name, it was wholly funded by Solomon R. Guggenheim, heir to a mining fortune, art collector, and late-in-life convert to high modernism. Unlike the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting did not reside in an eye-catching structure designed by an icon of American architecture; during the 15 years of its existence, from 1939 to 1954, it moved around town, occupying several inconspicuous-looking buildings. And unlike the second Guggenheim, the first wasn’t bent on omnivorously gathering the best of what the 20th century could offer in the way of art. Instead, it was a hyper-focused institution whose mission, as defined by its director and guiding spirit, the German-born artist and critic Hilla Rebay, was to passionately advocate for a particular strain of modern art—geometric abstraction.
The artist with the most works in the museum’s collection was the Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky, the dean of non-objective art and a master theoretician, author of On the Spiritual in Art and From Point and Line to Plane, which are among the formative texts of modernist art. The second-most represented was the German artist Rudolf Bauer, a member (along with Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Marc Chagall) of the avant-garde group Der Sturm and founder of his own, self-named museum in Berlin. He had 350 works in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. The third-most represented—and the only non-European in the bunch—was the Canadian-born American artist Rolph Scarlett, with 60 works. Today, both Scarlett and Bauer are less known, while Kandinsky is fixed in the firmament. This disparity, while reflecting the quality and originality of their work to some extent, is also due to the vicissitudes of cultural history and the mechanics of marketing. During the 1930s and 1940s, however, Scarlett’s star was high, and even after the closing of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and the mothballing of much of its collection, he continued to be a vigorous creator of abstract art until his death in 1984 at the age of 95.
Scarlett’s paintings from his classic period are perfect embodiments of the concept of non-objective painting. They consist of geometric shapes—circles, triangles, lines, spirals—interlaced or free-floating and placed within a luminous, almost conceptual space that is somehow neither flat nor three-dimensional. The colors tend to be very bright and vibrant, and Scarlett made full use of the principle of complementary colors, creating an overall impression of opposing yet harmonious forces. Throughout his career, Scarlett worked in several styles, almost all of them non-representational, but he recalled, in interviews done late in life (published in 2003 as a book written in collaboration with the artist and writer Harriet Tannin, the administrator of his estate, titled The Baroness, The Mogul, and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum) that “non-objective geometrical…is the most difficult method of painting I have undertaken. The problem is to create an organization from a few geometrical elements that is alive in 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…”
Scarlett’s geometrical paintings rigorously eschew any reference, no matter how tangential, to the natural world. Unlike, say, Cubism or Futurism, non-objective art does not take figurative elements and transform or distort them; in fact, Rebay insisted on the term “non-objective” rather than “abstract” because the latter term implies that the forms in question have been “abstracted” from things seen in the external world. Non-objective painting, on the other hand, is, quite literally, without an object, built from a vocabulary of pure shapes and colors. Rebay argued that non-objective art is the most creative kind of art, because it comes directly from the artist’s mind and inner vision, unlike art that depends on what nature happens to place in front of us.
In Kandinsky’s and Rebay’s theories—strongly influenced by Platonism and Theosophy—forms and colors inhabit an eternal, spiritual universe. For Rebay in particular, the purpose of non-objective painting was to bring spiritual enlightenment and transcendent peace, and therefore educating the broad public to appreciate this art was a quasi-religious endeavor. Scarlett, however, felt that art did not need mysticism. Rebay, he recalled, “would look at Bauer’s or Kandinsky’s work and read something spiritualistic into it. Kandinsky did that too. It was a mistake. The main thing is not mysticism or metaphysical phenomena, it’s esthetics: order, form, color, and rhythm.”
Scarlett was born in 1889 in Guelph, Ontario, to a family of moderate wealth and early on decided that he wanted to be an artist. At 14 he quit school to take up painting, but his father, worried about his future, stepped in and apprenticed him to an uncle who owned a jewelry shop in Guelph. For the next four years, Scarlett worked there and learned the jeweler’s craft, an education that stood him in very good stead in later life. For although he rarely made enough money from selling paintings to support himself, he was always able to make money by finding commercial applications for his artistic skills and vision—as an industrial designer, theater set designer, and jewelry designer whose pieces resemble works of abstract sculpture.
When he was 18, Scarlett was finally able to leave his job and go to New York, where he stayed for the better part of four years, earning his living by working in the jewelry business and studying briefly—in 1908 and 1909—at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase, John Sloan, and George Luks. When World War I broke out, he was back in Guelph, and though he was rejected for military service, he contributed his design skills to the war effort, helping to make munitions at the Massey-Harris Company (owned by the family of fellow Canadian modernist painter Lawren Harris, who would later become a friend of Scarlett’s in New York). During these years Scarlett painted figuratively, making some Cubist-influenced landscapes that resemble those of the German-born American painter Oscar Bluemner and cityscapes reminiscent of the Italian-American Joseph Stella.
Scarlett’s breakthrough into abstraction took place in 1923, sparked by a brief chance meeting with none other than Paul Klee. This took place in Geneva, where Scarlett had traveled on behalf of the Moser Watch Company, for which he was doing some design work. The president of the company gave a dinner party at which both Scarlett and Klee were guests. After the meal was over, Klee was passing the time by making abstract geometrical drawings on a sketchpad. Scarlett noticed and mentioned it to a fellow guest, who told Klee about the Canadian’s interest. Klee graciously handed the pad to Scarlett, encouraging him to add his own patterns to the drawing. “I scribbled a little,” Scarlett recalled, “but didn’t seem to get anywhere. On looking closer, I realized that his scribblings had a definite design, while mine were utterly meaningless….When I got back to my hotel room that evening I dug up every scrap of paper I could find and scribbled until four in the morning. That was the moment I left the world of realism completely. It changed my life.”
Back in the States, Scarlett moved to Toledo, Ohio, for another design job. While there he submitted a pastel piece in the Futurist style to a juried show at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1926. The work, titled Static, was, in the words of a critic for the Toledo Blade, “an attempt in primary pastels to describe ocularly the blasting torments of the electrical interference which regularly assails the ears of radio enthusiasts.” This artistic synesthesia became a recurring theme in Scarlett’s work, and he often spoke of the equivalence of painting and music, using terms such as tone and rhythm to describe the effects he was after. And the technological aspect of Static is in keeping with Scarlett’s industrial experience, which continued to be visible in his work even after he stopped working as an industrial designer. In fact, a good number of his paintings, non-objective though they may be, look like they could be diagrams of cosmic machines, with wheels turning, gears meshing, and belt-drives spinning.
Scarlett spent most of the 1930s in Southern California and New York, where he spent a good deal of time on designing sets for plays, musicals, and films. Surviving gouache drawings for some of these designs show that he was bringing expressionistic and abstract concepts to this work, creating very bold avant-garde looks. His designs for a 1929 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the Pasadena Playhouse were photographed by Johan Hagemeyer, who taught Edward Weston how to use a large-format camera. The eerie, constructivist cityscapes Scarlett created for this play, he said, took him “further into the non-objective world,” even though he “didn’t realize it at the time.”
By 1938, Scarlett was back in New York, where he was soon employed designing an installation for the Bakelite Company’s booth for the 1939 World’s Fair. At the same time, his wife did him a major career favor by sending a portfolio of some of his paintings and drawings to Hilla Rebay. Rebay had risen in the art world since she met Solomon Guggenheim a few years before. Guggenheim commissioned her to paint his portrait, and she infected him with her enthusiasm for non-objective painting. (She may also have become his lover, although the exact nature of their relationship is difficult to ascertain. Certainly they had an intense friendship and association that yielded practical results and no small amount of controversy.) Up to that point, Guggenheim had mainly collected Old Masters.
Rebay—whose full name was Baroness Hildegaard Rebay von Ehrenwiesen—had emigrated to the U.S. in 1927, having already acquired some fame in her native Germany and in Paris as an abstract painter. A strong personality, she was persuasive and passionate but also given to outbursts and the breaking off of relationships. When she saw Scarlett’s work she immediately took him under her wing, promoting him, buying his work, and giving him a position as a lecturer at the newly-founded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. She also introduced him to Bauer, who had recently arrived in the U.S. after being released from a Nazi concentration camp, to which he had been sent for persisting in making “degenerate art.” Bauer and Scarlett became great friends, but the relationship was shattered about a decade later by a lawsuit filed by the ever-litigious Baroness against Bauer, her one-time protégé and romantic partner.
Rebay’s imperious nature, doctrinaire pronouncements, and ambiguous relationship with Guggenheim led to her downfall after Guggenheim’s death in 1949. The tycoon’s family, his wife in particular, resented her presence in his life and influence in the art world, and when plans for the Guggenheim Museum were drawn up, most of the collection of non-objective was exiled to storage, and Rebay was ousted. While these developments spelled trouble for Scarlett’s career and reputation with posterity, he himself was not overly unhappy, because while he appreciated her patronage and admired her energy, he disliked being controlled and bullied (Rebay would sometimes mark corrections in chalk on Scarlett’s canvases, which he would promptly ignore). Starting in the 1950s, Scarlett’s work took a turn away from the hard-edged geometric style, becoming looser and more expressionistic. Some paintings resemble biomorphic abstractions, while others are non-objective but more like crystalline refractions and explosions of light than like pure Euclidean geometry. Occasionally, figuration appears, in the form of cartoonish human figures or animal forms such as birds emerging from a tangle of abstract forms. For a brief time in the early ’50s, Scarlett engaged in drip painting à la Pollock. In the late ’60s he returned to his geometric non-objective style with renewed vigor, creating works as energetic and captivating as those of the ’40s.
Recently, Scarlett’s work has been rediscovered. In the mid-1990s, the Guggenheim deaccessioned a number of works from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting collection, including some 30 Scarletts. These went on the market and stimulated interest from collectors and made it possible for galleries to mount important exhibitions. In 2011 Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco did a comprehensive retrospective titled “Listen With Your Eyes.” With the help of shows like this, Scarlett can now be appreciated for himself, not as the exemplar of a movement. The Rebay influence ended up having a a boomerang effect, with a downward force after her eclipse that was nearly as strong as the buoying she gave her artists when she was in the ascendancy. In a broader sense, the facile identification of Scarlett’s work with the dogmas of non-objectivity led to their being marginalized after that school of art came to be perceived as a side road of the highway of modernism. But now that the art-historical dust is settling, we can see his work for what it is, the unique creation of a multi-talented, visionary man of the machine age.
By John Dorfman