Rolph Scarlett’s Common Universe


Rolph Scarlett
Common Universe, c. 1962
Oil on canvas
50 x 50 inches

Estate of the Artist;
Blake Benton Fine Art, New York;
Private Collection, Arizona;
Private Collection, Austin, TX

Rolph Scarlett was a multi-talented New York artist, born in Canada, who primarily worked in the domains of painting and jewelry design. Scarlett is known for geometric abstraction and later in the 1950s he would move on to a more expressionist style. He painted in a non-objective style, his painting reflecting the geometric shapes of his sculpted jewelry.

Scarlett was born in Guelph, Ontario. His grandmother taught him painting as a youth and encouraged him to continue his studies at the Art Students League in New York. As a teenager, he took a job working for his uncle’s jewelry business where he learned the basics of gem setting. Trips to New York in his late teens and early twenties exposed the artist to abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky. After moving to New York, Scarlett took a trip to Europe in 1923 where he met painter Paul Klee who deepened Scarlett’s love for and understanding of the modern and abstract. From this point, the influence of both Klee and Kandinsky in Scarlett’s work became readily apparent.

In 1928, Scarlett took a job working as the set designer for the Pasadena Playhouse and spent the next eight years in California. In 1936, Scarlett returned to New York. Shortly thereafter, his art caught the eye of curator Hilla Rebay, hired by the Guggenheims to assemble their art collection. At the time, Rebay was also serving as the director of the Museum of Non-Objective Art, a perfect venue in which Scarlett’s paintings could be displayed. Their meeting led to a lifelong partnership between the two which allowed Scarlett and his paintings to gain a wider audience. So taken was Rebay with Scarlett’s artistic angle and style that she convinced the Guggenheims to purchase many of Rolph Scarlett’s paintings, displaying them alongside paintings by Kandinsky. She also made him chief lecturer at her museum, a position he held until the mid 1940s.

Although Rebay’s support of Scarlett forced him to explore the geometric abstractions (Non-Objective), he continuously stood by his artistic methodology, which is described as “creating an organization that is alive as to color, and form, with challenging and stimulating rhythms, making full use of one’s emotional and intuitive creative programming and keeping it under cerebral control, so that when it is finished it is a visual experience that is alive with mysticism and inner order, and has grown into a new world of art governed by authority.

In his last decades Scarlett lived in the art colony of Woodstock, New York, where he divided his time between painting and jewelry design. His works are represented in the permanent collections of numerous museums including the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.