"I find something coming into the abstract work of certain Americans-particularly Georgia O'Keeffe and Helen Torr-which is emotionally very moving," wrote historian Sheldon Cheney in his 1924 Primer of Modern Art. O'Keeffe was already well known and would soon become even more famous; Torr, then...
"I find something coming into the abstract work of certain Americans-particularly Georgia O'Keeffe and Helen Torr-which is emotionally very moving," wrote historian Sheldon Cheney in his 1924 Primer of Modern Art. O'Keeffe was already well known and would soon become even more famous; Torr, then as now, was obscure. But her gentle and intimate abstractions from the 1920s and 1930s were admired by the most forward-looking painters and critics of the day: by New York Sun reviewer Henry McBride, who praised her use of color; by Georgia O'Keeffe, who included several works by Torr in an exhibition she organized in 1927; and above all, by her husband Arthur Dove. Philadelphia-born Torr was trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and was living near Westport, Connecticut when she met Dove. By 1920 they were living together on a houseboat, and they subsequently moved to a small sailboat moored on Long Island Sound. Torr and Dove had very little money and living on a boat was cheap; their work from this period is generally small in scale, since their boat provided only very cramped work space. Torr's paintings from the late 1920s tended to be abstract, though they generally contained poetic references to nature. "Evening Sounds," painted in soft secondary tones of lavender, maroon, and orange against a gray background, has no obvious subject, yet it is evocative and full of feeling. The key motif is the rhythmic progression of lavender ovals that have the measured repose of rocks in a Zen garden seen at close range, while at the same time they seem to drift off into a silvery space. This presentation of the harmonies of nature in an abstract and therefore universal language was a principal concern of artists associated with Alfred Stieglitz (even if that association was only through marriage-Stieglitz, who gave Dove solo exhibitions at his gallery An American Place almost every year from 1926 on, showed Torr only once, in 1933). At the same time, Torr's silvery tones and-as this painting's evocation of sound through color suggests-her interest in synesthesia remind us how closely she was working with her husband. His 1927 painting "George Gershwin-I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (MFA 1990.407), with its metallic colors and jazzy shapes, is as ebullient as Torr's Evening Sounds is serene; together they reveal artists working in tandem. This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.
The artist; to her estate, 1967; with James Graham, New York; to MFA, 1998, purchase.
The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund
Courtesy the Estate of Helen Torr & James Graham and Sons, New York.