O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York

February 18 - May 15, 2016



 

Torr text panel and artwork labels

 

Torr text panel:

Helen Torr

1886-1967

Helen Torr studied art in her native Philadelphia. She met painter Arthur Dove in 1919, and two years later the pair left their spouses and moved to a houseboat, which they moored around Manhattan and Long Island for the next twelve years. The tight space forced them to work on a small scale, and they developed a shared modernist language. Although Torr created some purely nonobjective works, in most of her paintings she combined abstraction with figuration to suggest her subject's underlying expressive content. She often contrasted starkly still human-made forms with wildly energetic nature.

Torr's early art does not survive, so her radical modernism of the mid-1920s seems to come from nowhere. She was frequently ill and dejected about her art, doubting its worth. Dove encouraged her, praising her to his dealer, Alfred Stieglitz. While Stieglitz often disparaged Torr's output, his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, admired it -- indeed, her work resembles both Torr's and Dove's, and the three artists likely influenced each other. Torr was thrilled when O'Keeffe included her pictures in her 1927 exhibition of works by women artists at the Opportunity Gallery. By 1930 Torr felt more confident and began working on a larger scale.

Many critics saw Torr as following in Dove's footsteps. In fact, the couple were both responsible for their shared modernism, but 1930s Americans assumed that since Torr was a woman, she must have been less significant. And, in the history of art, Torr isless important than Dove: she produced fewer paintings, partly because she prioritized her husband's career before her own, frequently stopping her own work in order to help him.

In 1933 Torr and Dove moved to upstate New York, where Torr created poignant self-portraits, her only figurative canvases. When Dove became ill in 1938, Torr abandoned painting entirely to take care of him. She never worked again, and at her death, asked her sister to destroy her art. Thankfully her sister did not comply, making it possible to reevaluate Torr's compelling modernism.

 

Torr labels:

Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Hill Forms, circa 1925
Charcoal on paper
Collection of Michael and Juliet Rubenstein
 
Although little is known about Torr's initial forays into modernism, they seem to have been charcoal drawings like this one. The artist's subject was one that would occupy her throughout her career: the burgeoning energy of the natural world. Four bars across the top of the composition may allude to the railings of a boat or those on the porch of the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite, Long Island, where Torr and her husband, Arthur Dove, were members. The drawing may suggest the way she was increasingly viewing the world: from her boat's deck or the club's dock.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Evening Sounds, circa 1925-30
Oil on composition board
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Hayden Collection -Charles Henry Hayden Fund.
 
Torr occasionally abandoned figuration entirely when she sought to express an abstract concept. In Evening Sounds, she focused on the subject of sound, which occupied many modernist artists, including her husband, Arthur Dove. Here, Torr evoked the growing hush of the world as it prepares for sleep. The ovals that extend down the middle of the painting overlap, with the largest at bottom and the smallest at top. As a result, they seem to recede into the distance, suggesting the gradual quieting of the evening.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Purple and Green Leaves, 1927
Oil on copper mounted on board
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection
 
In 1926 and 1927, Torr and her husband, Arthur Dove, experimented with working on metal supports. Here, she painted on copper, which gives the composition an underlying luminosity that underscores the plants' burgeoning growth. Torr truncated the pictorial space and framed her subject with an arch, focusing attention on the leaves' darkly vibrant colors. This shape also makes the canvas resemble stained glass, giving the subject a sacred cast and alluding to the reverence nature inspired in Torr. Georgia O'Keeffe likely included this picture in her 1927 exhibition of women artists' work at the Opportunity Gallery.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Buildings, circa late 1920s
Charcoal on paper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Carol O. Selle, 1978
 
Torr used charcoal for her earliest modernist compositions and returned to it repeatedly throughout her career. As her aesthetic purpose changed, she varied her handling. Compared to the more tightly rendered Basket of Vegetables (on view to the right of this work), this drawing suggestive, with structures floating in an ambiguous space. Torr once told her sister, "I should have worked in black and white." Even in her paintings, the artist rarely used bright colors but instead confined herself to a muted palette. This choice contributes to her work's overall sense of quietness.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Sea Shell, 1928
Gouache and charcoal on paper
Gift of Mr. Robert J. Day; Collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art
 
In the late 1920s, Torr began enlarging natural subjects to make the viewer look at them anew. Her husband, Arthur Dove, wrote to his dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, about Torr's creation of this work, noting, "[She] captured a beauty yesterday and has discovered that she is a miser. That is, when the materials cost nothing the work is much freer. . . . I told her the first thing she knew something fine would happen, and sure enough there it is on paper." Here, only the title tells the viewer that the rhyming, curved forms were inspired by a shell. Such works demonstrate Torr's fascination with exploring the abstraction underlying nature, an interest she shared with Georgia O'Keeffe.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Basket of Vegetables, 1928-1929
Charcoal on paper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Alice C. Simkins in memory of Alice Nicholson Hanszen, 1978
 
Although she had expanded her range of media by the late 1920s, Torr continued to gravitate toward charcoal, which she had used to make her first modernist works. In 1929 she noted in her diary, "A charcoal drawing once more -- enjoyed it as a medium." As this sheet and Buildings (on view to the left of this work) demonstrate, she changed her technique according to her subject. Basket of Vegetables tightly rendered and demonstrates Torr's skills as a draftsperson.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Houses on a Barge, 1929
Oil on canvas
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky, 1988, 1988.371.2
 
In 1929 Torr and Dove began to create preparatory drawings for their paintings, a practice they had not followed previously. One of Torr's first was her drawing for this picture; she recorded that she had sketched a "barge full of houses -- really quite funny." This humor is absent from the painting, in which the dark palette creates an ominous mood, and the gathering clouds suggest a rising storm, the sort of bad weather that the artist knew well from living on a boat. Dove was impressed with the painting, and Torr wrote that he was "in a turmoil over outdoing himself." Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the immensely supportive Dove felt anything other than pride in his wife's work.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Corrugated Building, 1929
Oil on panel
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by The Brown Foundation, Inc., and Isabel B. Wilson in memory of Peter C. Marzio
 
In her mature works, Torr often explored the distinction between geometric, human-made structures and organic nature. She was fascinated by Alfred Stieglitz's series of photographs of clouds, Equivalents, and in her paintings she used the subject, like he did, to explore expressive form for its own sake. However, as Corrugated Building, Torr's clouds suggest a roiling energy all her own. Here, these vigorous forms contrast with the still verticality of the abstracted industrial building. The close resemblance between such works by Torr and contemporaneous paintings by her husband, Arthur Dove, illustrates their shared modernist aesthetic.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Oyster Stakes, 1930
Oil on panel
Gift of Mrs. Mary Rehm; Collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art
 
In July 1930, Torr made a drawing of two oyster stakes -- markers used to indicate oyster grounds -- in Huntington Harbor off Long Island. In August, she and Dove enlarged the work, and Torr began this canvas. She recalled, "I started the painting of 'Two Oyster Flags.' Got sky in and part of water. Said to myself, 'O lord save this from being trite' -- So many millions of skys and waters having been done up to now." In her final composition, the suggestive cloud shapes echo the diagonals of the waves and stakes, creating the distinctive sense of rhythmic motion that often appears in Torr's work.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Shell, Stone, Feather, and Bark-
Oil on canvasboard
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY
 
In October 1931, Torr recorded in her diary, "Started painting of piece of bark, shell, stone + feather." That work became this picture. The artist loved to collect such objects in her walks around Halesite, Long Island, where her houseboat was moored. In fact, when Torr died, her sister Mary reported that she found "boxes of shells and feathers and stones my sister so loved" in her house. Here, Torr used these elements to explore contrasts in texture: between the soft feather, the smooth shell and stone, and the craggy bark behind. In order to focus attention on these different materials, she rendered each with a greater degree of three-dimensionality than she often used in her still lifes.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Along the Shore, 1932
Oil on canvas
Karen and Kevin Kennedy Collection
 
Unlike White Cloud (Light House) (on display in this gallery), which depicts an impressive building, Along the Shore captures a humble tar-paper shack that is encircled by, rather than standing proudly against, the forms of nature. Its still blockiness contrasts with the movement of the waves, reeds blowing in the wind, and wildly energetic trees and sky. The structure's utterly mundane character enhances the viewer's sense of the drama of nature surrounding it.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
White Cloud (Light House), circa 1932
Oil on canvas
Private Collection
 
In the summer of 1932, Torr sketched the lighthouse at the mouth of Huntington Harbor off Long Island and then created this painting. Although the rising clouds echo the building's vertical thrust, as she did in many of her mature works, Torr emphasized the contrast between the human-made structure and nature. Finished in 1912, the Huntington Harbor Lighthouse is decorated with both neoclassical and neomedieval ornament, but Torr eliminated these elements, transforming it into a streamlined, geometric block to emphasize its difference from the irregular, curving natural forms around it.
 
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
Self Portrait, 1934-1935
Oil on canvas
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust, H-2331.1976
 
In 1933 Torr and her husband, Arthur Dove, moved to Geneva, New York, to settle his family's estate. There she created a series of self-portraits, which are her first exploration of this subject and her only extant figurative works. After several discarded attempts, the artist began this painting in February 1934. She wrote of it in her diary: "A more orderly palette. Better in color but not yet the one of me." Nevertheless, like the later I (on view to the right of this work), this self-portrayal is compellingly honest. Torr's straightforward gaze makes it impossible to ignore the carefully rendered shadows defining her careworn face, revealing the toll that the artist's difficult life had taken on her.
 
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
I, 1935
Oil on canvas
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Gift of Nancy Stein Simpson, class of 1963, in memory of Samuel Stein
 
Torr was dissatisfied with the earlier Self Portrait (on view to the left of this work) but stopped painting after creating it so that she could help her husband, Arthur Dove, prepare for his annual exhibition, and the two could move to a new house. She fell sick that summer and did not begin painting again until the end of the year, when she created this work. As in Self Portrait, in I artist stares hauntingly out of the composition, conveying her sadness and strength, as she struggled to maintain confidence in her work in the face of her ill health and condescending treatment by most of the avant-garde art world.
 
 
Helen Torr
American, 1886-1967
January, 1935
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Mary Rehm; Collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art
 
Here, the view of a rural structure surrounded by bare trees conveys the utter stillness of the bitterly cold winter in Upstate New York. The smoke coming from the chimneys has the crisp definition such gases display in low temperatures, making it a compositional element in its own right, with curves echoing the forms of the foreground trees. The solid, geometric block of the house contrasts with the elements outside it so that it appears as a bulwark against the harshness of nature. Soon after she created this work, Torr stopped painting entirely in order to care for her ailing husband.

 

Torr quote for wall:

"I have the feeling I can paint now."
 
-- Helen Torr, 1930

 

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