Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) was a visionary who sought to express through her painting a realm beyond the physical. The exhibition, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, opened at the Whitney in March as the country went into lockdown, so for much of the run of the show it was dark. I saw it in September just as the museum was reopening, when attendance was sparse. Pelton was part of the Transcendentalist Painting Group in Taos, founded in 1938 by Emil Bisttram (1895-1976) and Raymond Jonson (1891-1982). Not coincidentally the work of the latter two was on exhibition at D. Wigmore Fine Art, a gem of a gallery on 57th Street that specializes in abstraction and realism within the Modernist period. This post looks at the work of all three artists.
Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist at the Whitney Museum
The Pelton exhibition marks the second major museum show in recent years to feature the work of a relatively unknown female visionary. In the 2018-2019 season it was Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim. I'd say that Klint’s was the more powerful, with large-scale paintings, many of them complex geometric abstractions owing their creation to her occult studies and visions. Klint makes us rethink the origins of contemporary abstraction—it was likely she who soared past representation even before Kandinsky— but her wish that her work not be shown until 20 years after her death meant that she would remain largely unknown for decades.
Pelton, on the other hand, was an exhibiting artist with numerous solo and group shows to her credit. She showed regularly in New York City and had several paintings included in the 1929 Armory Show. Through Theosophy, Zen Buddhism, and yoga she had been exploring paths to a higher consciousness. Seeking solitude, she relocated first to the then-unpopulated eastern end of Long Island (where she lived in a windmill) and then to the desert near Palm Springs, California, where she could reconcile her paintings with her longing for and experience of consciousness on a higher plane. Born in Germany, with a career start in New York City, she nevertheless found California to be her spiritual home.
After early realist work, Pelton settled on forms that are largely biomorphic, often swirly, with veils of color achieved through glazing. Her iconography depicts vessels, buds and flowers, stars, flames, circles, and terrestrial landscapes with a sense of the otherworldly. A few of the paintings are reminiscent of Tantric drawings. Her palette consists largely of celestial and aqueous blues and a radiant lightness.
Some 45 easel-size works, modest by contemporary standards, were handsomely installed, some in dark-walled rooms. The intentionally small number of visitors and relative quiet heightened the contemplative nature of the work. For the most part I didn’t connect with Pelton’s deeply personal iconography. To be honest, I found many of the paintings kind of hokey—except for the sublime painting that opens this post, which I could look at every day for the rest of my life—but her longing for unity with the divine was powerfully present in the work.
The artist died in 1961 of liver cancer at the age of 79. She left behind a large body of work which depicts that longing. Let’s hope she completed her journey.
.The exhibition originated at the Phoenix Art Museum, curated by Gilbert Vicario
. You will find installation shots and videos on the Whitney website
. Roberta Smith's review in the New York Times is here
From the wall text: "Interval is one of many paintings that Pelton centered on a circle. With no beginning and no end, the form has often been used by artists to suggest infinity and self-contained harmony. Fittingly, given Pelton's belief in the power of certain shapes to covey 'the higher possibilities of vision,' she incorporated circles in her compositions to suggest the calm radiance at the center of a storm."
. . . below, Fires in Space, 1938, oil on canvas
From the wall text: Mountains, for Pelton, symbolized personal growth. Here, she underscores their transformative power by picturing them as host to ascending flames, which were central to Agni Yoga, a spiritual discipline based on fire as a metaphor for the powerful yet dematerialized inner force that can guide each individual to higher consciousness. Inspired by her study of the discipline, Pelton included fire imagery in a number of her works to signify the 'Creative fire of the Universe' within herself and others. As she noted in her journal, 'In the fire world I perceived beauty in the Abstract as a living power.'"
From the wall text: "Mother of Silence portrays the universe's divine feminine force, or World Mother as it is known in Theosophy. A spiritual movement focused on self-knowledge and encompassing ideas such as karma and reincarnation, Theosophy was developed in the late nineteenth century by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian émigré to the United States. Pelton depicts the figure as a 'Mighty Angel' on a throne of jade, encircled by an ethereal glow. To Pelton, the image was a living presence to which she could turn for guidance. Several of her journal entries record the questions she asked of it and the answers she received."
From the wall text: "Pelton created this work several days after moving from Long Island to Cathedral City, California, a small community near Palm Springs, where she witnessed a sand storm whose formlessness fascinated her. She described the picture's central image as a 'pale, clear blue sky' ringed with clouds 'seen through sand.' The rainbow beneath this image symbolizes the essential benevolence she saw in the universe. For the rest of her life, Pelton derived inspiration from the desert's vast, spare expanse."
From the wall text: "Pelton's Sea Change depicts the movement of water, which the artist regarded as a metaphor for spiritual transformation and the relinquishment of ego. Like many artists of her generation, she was deeply influenced by Wassily Kandinsky and his 1911 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. His theories affirmed her own belief in the inherent spirituality of art, as well as the need to dispense with realism in favor of painting from what the Russian artist called the 'vibrations of the soul.' Like Kandinsky, Pelton believed that art communicates the universal energies of both the seen and the unseen world through color, which functions like 'voice' or 'vibration' filling the viewer's consciousness. In her journal, she described the blue in this picture as an 'emotive color of astral body and astral wave' and the work's pale azure as a 'mystic blue . . . astral and spiritual.'"
The Art of Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram at D. Wigmore Fine Art
Installation of work by Jonson and Bisttram
Photo from the D. Wigmore Fine Art website
Bisttram and Jonson were at the center of the Transcendental
Painting Group, which they founded in 1938. Pelton joined them when she moved
West. “Join” is probably the wrong word, because while she shared an affinity
with them, she remained in California, although she maintained a correspondence
with the two.
“The group selected the term ‘transcendental’” to represent
them because of its universal sense of shared values that eschewed such
concepts as religion, politics, fashion, and commercialism in favor of
promoting a sense of the sublime, of connecting to the realm of the spirit.
While likeminded in their philosophies, the group was an eclectic bunch, with
differing painting styles, and not all of them lived in New Mexico the entire
time, although the core group did,” wrote Nancy Zimmerman in a magazine found in
the Transcendentalist Archive maintained by Addison Rowe Gallery in Santa Fe,
which, like D. Wigmore, retains an inventory of the two artists’ work..
Both Bisttram and Jonson came to abstraction via realism. By the time they founded the TSG, “both had progressed to full abstraction for the purpose of carrying paintings beyond the physical world through new concepts of space, color, light, and design,” writes Deedee Wigmore in her essay for the show. The exhibition of paintings by Bisttram and Jonson at Wigmore are, like Pelton’s, modestly scaled. To generalize, Bisttram, who worked in encaustic with a very light hand, focused on hard-edge geometric forms, while Jonson crosshatched with a fine brush in oil to achieve a uniquely textured surface for his curvilinear compositions. For work on paper he sometimes used watercolor with an airbrush to emphasize the softness of his shapes.
You can see the gallery's full catalog of their work and read Wigmore’s terrifically informative essay, which provides historical background for each artist as well as insight into their work. (There’s so much we didn’t learn in art history. Our galleries and museums allow us to continue the study.)
Here’s a look at some of what I saw.
Detail below showing the artist's airbrushed surface