Rolf Scarlett 1889 —1993


The problem is to create 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 program¬ming and keeping it under cerebral control so that when it is finished it is a visual experience that is alive with a mysticism, inner order and intrigue and has grown into a new world of art governed by esthetic authority. - Rolph Scarlett

ROLPH SCARLETT (1889 - 1984)

During Rolph Scarlett's remarkable 75 year career he was an important painter of geometric abstractions during the American avant-garde movement of the 1930s and 1940s, an innovative set designer, an industrial designer, and the creator of unique sculptural jewelry in the American modernist tradition. Throughout his life Rolph Scarlett's work moved between representational, geometric, Non- Objective and abstraction. Whether working in fine art or jewelry, abstraction gave voice to his passion.

Born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 1889, at 14 he began a 4 year apprenticeship to his Uncle, a jewelry maker and at the age of 18 he visited New York City. While living in Canada, Scarlett continued to travel to New York, although for shorter stays, probably on jewelry related business. In 1913 while on a trip to New York when he was 24, Scarlett saw the Armory Show. It would prove to be an important event in his artistic career and he came away fascinated with the modern and abstract art he saw. At the landmark Armory Show of 1913 the works of Wassily Kandinsky were a stand-out feature.

While he was beginning his career as an abstract painter he was designing stages for George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman" and for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

Scarlett lived in Southern California during 1928 to 1936. While there, he painted and did set designs for the Pasadena Playhouse. Leaving California, he returned to New York City where, as an industrial designer during the 1930s, Scarlett produced a remarkable body of design drawings for everything from household objects to New York World's Fair amusement rides and guided missiles. His streamlined modern designs emphasized efficiency, science, and progress.

While in the process of creating the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) in 1939, Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay began to take an interest in Scarlett's work. By 1940 he became the new museum's chief lecturer. Rolph Scarlett was the first American artist selected to provide paintings alongside Kandinsky, Klee and Bauer for Solomon Guggenheim's Museum of Non-objective Painting.

Scarlett's acceptance into the Museum of Non-objective painting resulted in a close friendship with its founder, Hilla Rebay. By 1953, the Guggenheim owned nearly sixty of his paintings and monoprints. With artists such as Rudolph Bauer, also working at the Guggenheim, and Rebay, offering their constructive criticism, Scarlett was guided through the Non-objective art world by the hand, but was never blinded by their personal artistic philosophies. His body of work reflects an artist truly devoted to the exploration and continuation of abstract art, while simultaneously holding onto the romantic conception of the artist being the creator, an idea wholeheartedly rejected by the tenets of Non-Objective art, which is ironically what he is most well-known for.

Although Rebay's support of Scarlett forced him to explore the geometric abstractions (Non- Objective) with pursuit, 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" (Struve, 1990).

He later became a resident of the Woodstock art colony for more than 25 years and showed his work in the Woodstock exhibits. He remained at his estate in Woodstock until his death in August of 1984.

According to Woodstock Resident and Scarlett scholar and author, Harriet Tannin (also his student), Scarlett created a substantial body of pure abstractions, beginning in the 1930's and would continue to do them in secret during his tenure of creating non-objective works for Rebay's Guggenheim. The two Scarlett oils chosen for the Whitney Museum's 1951 Annual were indeed his abstract expressionist works.

Throughout his life he had made unique sculptural jewelry and after his retirement in the 1960s jewelry increasingly became his focus. He actively made jewelry until a few years before his death at age 95.

Rolf Scarlett's 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. Exhibitions include: Hagemeyer Studio (L.A.), 1930; GGIE, 1939; Seigelman Gallery (N.Y.C.), 1949; Whitney Museum Annual (N.Y.C.), 1951; Tanar Gallery (L.A.), 1964; Woodstock Artist Association (Woodstock), 1950-1984.

An important source for modern and contemporary American & European Art in East Hampton, New York & worldwide, Janet Lehr Fine Arts' spectacular wide-ranging inventory consists of unique paintings, drawings, large & small scale sculpture, monotypes, prints and photographs  by Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Fernando Botero, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Chagall, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, David Hockney, Winslow Homer, Wolf Kahn, Jeff Koons, Fernand Leger, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Thomas Moran, Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Charles Sheeler, Bert Stern, Alfred Stieglitz, Andy Warhol, Carleton E Watkins, Tom Wesselmann and Andrew Wyeth.

To bookmark Janet Lehr Fine Arts Gallery website:

View synoptic biography below.

Home / Artist Index / Rolf Scarlett


Art Blog

Metropolitan Museum of Art Annual costume Institute Gala and exhibition opening will be May 1, 2017
Turner's Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time February 23, 2017 to May 14, 2017 - Frick Museum
'The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers' Review: Etchings With a Painterly Touch. Wall Street Journal.
View All

The Vered Gallery App