Rediscovering a Forgotten
Woman Modernist Inspired
by Nature’s Unseen Forces

Agnes Pelton, The Ray Serene, 1925.

Photo: Jairo Ramirez
Agnes Pelton, The Ray Serene, 1925.
A new exhibition shifts the longstanding narrative about American modern art to include a long-overlooked woman who embraced both visual and spiritual experimentation

A new exhibition shifts the longstanding narrative about American modern art to include a long-overlooked woman who embraced both visual and spiritual experimentation

Photo: Edward C. Robison III.

Agnes Pelton, Sand Storm, 1932.

“Instead of rejecting conventional realism, she thought of her own symbolic art as transcendental portals, as ways to widen and update the scope of representation to reflect not only what she saw with her eye but also what she experienced in the recesses of her mind.”

Michael Zakian

Few outside of Cathedral City, California, noticed when Agnes Pelton died in 1961. Although her close community of friends and neighbors mourned the artist who had painted compelling works that reflected her intensive studies of esoteric beliefs, the art world had largely ignored her visionary compositions. Many who did remember her work were only familiar with Pelton’s more conventional desert landscapes that she painted to support herself.

Now Pelton’s abstractions are finally getting the mainstream acclaim they lacked during her lifetime. Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, the first survey on her work in over two decades, recently debuted at the Phoenix Art Museum. The traveling show opens October 3 at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. Then it will stop at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art (March 13–June 28, 2020) and the Palm Springs Art Museum (August 1–November 29, 2020). The exhibition features about 40 of her luminous, enigmatic paintings created between 1917 and 1961.

Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, was himself unfamiliar with Pelton before his 2015 arrival at the institution. “Like a lot of curators, I had never heard of her,” Vicario said. “Then I found out that the museum I came from—the Des Moines Art Center—had had one of her pieces in their collection the whole time, and I didn’t discover her during those six years that I was in Des Moines. But subsequently, I came to realize that Pelton is really an artist that more artists know about than curators.”

Developing the exhibition was a challenge as Pelton has no estate and many of her works are in private collections. Her papers at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art and exhibitions like the Palm Springs Museum of Art’s 1995 Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature—the last major solo show on her art—were crucial in identifying her surviving work and understanding her practice in the context of both American modernism and her spirituality.

“A gentle, generous, caring personality, she accepted all types of art and human experience as equally revealing of deeper truths,” Michael Zakian, curator of the 1995 show, writes in an Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist catalogue essay. “Instead of rejecting conventional realism, she thought of her own symbolic art as transcendental portals, as ways to widen and update the scope of representation to reflect not only what she saw with her eye but also what she experienced in the recesses of her mind.”

Born in 1881 to American parents in Stuttgart, Germany, she moved with her family to the United States in 1888, and later attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She got her start in the New York scene alongside artists who rebelliously rejected pictorial realism, exhibiting two of her Imaginative Paintings in the pivotal 1913 Armory Show. One was the otherworldly Vine Wood in which a young woman in a flowing dress emerges from a shadowy forest.

Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941.
Photo: Martin Seck

Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941.

Agnes Pelton, Prelude, 1943.
2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Agnes Pelton, Prelude, 1943.

Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1933.
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1933.

Agnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934.
Oakland Museum of California

Agnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934.

Agnes Pelton, Mother of Silence, 1933.
Phoenix Art Museum

Agnes Pelton, Mother of Silence, 1933.

Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932.
Phoenix Art Museum

Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932.

Agnes Pelton, Light Center, 1947-1948.
Photo: Jairo Ramirez

Agnes Pelton, Light Center, 1947-1948.

Agnes Pelton, Future, 1941.
Phoenix Art Museum

Agnes Pelton, Future, 1941.

Agnes Pelton, Departure, 1952.
Photo: Paul Salveson

Agnes Pelton, Departure, 1952.

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935.
Phoenix Art Museum

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935.

Yet her approach to abstraction through biomorphic forms and delicate layers of light responded to new spiritual thinking as much as the radical upheaval of modern art. Drawing on Theosophical doctrines proposed by the Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, Agni Yoga introduced in 1920 by theosophist Helena Roerich and artist Nicholas Roerich, and the recent work of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, she developed a symbolically rich visual language. The swirling hues of the 1925 The Ray Serene were influenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s writings on the spiritual effect of color in art; the 1933 Fires in Space has bursts of glowing light evoking the fiery elements central to self-realization in Agni Yoga.

“She was definitely not completely unknown during her lifetime,” Vicario said. “But I also think that what she was doing was so far ahead of her time, that it was difficult for people to make sense of it based on what was happening in the art world, and so it never quite fit in. It was not surrealist and it was not New York school of abstraction. It was a very idiosyncratic practice.”

In the early 1930s, she left the East Coast and settled in Cathedral City, a small town near Palm Springs. Her studio included a meditation room, and she extensively read esoteric texts and studied the surrounding dramatic landscape of deserts and mountains. “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me,” she wrote. “I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.” Her 1932 Messengers has an ethereal urn-shaped light rising from the craggy desert floor, suggesting some primordial power coming from the land itself. The stunning vistas also informed the more straightforward desert landscapes that she sold to bolster her often meager finances.

While she was part of the Transcendental Painting Group, active from 1938 to 1941 in New Mexico, she mostly worked from an individual perspective of the environment through systems such as astrology and numerology. As she once wrote to artist Raymond Jonson, founder of the Group, working on these atmospheric pieces “was like painting with a moth’s wing and with music instead of paint.”

Desert Transcendentalist examines how Pelton’s work shifted and evolved. One of her later paintings, the 1952 Departure, is among her simpler compositions, centering on two circles, one light, and one dark, meeting in a harmonious eclipse that considers the passage of time. Vicario noted that of the about one hundred works Pelton painted in this abstract style, around sixty are known to survive. “And the other forty were either lost or destroyed, we don’t know what happened,” he said. As Desert Transcendentalist tours, the organizers hope that more of her pieces emerge. Already, the exhibition has expanded ahead of its Santa Fe opening.

“There is a minor change to the checklist since Phoenix, including the addition of a painting from 1926, First Spring Garland,” said Merry Scully, head of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. “We are also building out a resource and education area within the exhibition where visitors can play with color transparencies to create abstract compositions, write poetry inspired by Pelton’s paintings, and a sensory drawing station where visitors can draw what they hear.”

“It is time to realize that she was not alone in her quest to capture the esoteric in a more abstract idiom, but part of a trajectory of women artists who will undoubtedly become better known and eventually be given their proper art historical due.”

Notably, the exhibition is touring at a time of increased attention to women who have been left out of the history of 20th-century modern art, including the 2018-19 Hilma af Klint exhibition which broke attendance records at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Like Pelton, af Klint painted as a metaphysical expression with the Swedish artist participating in seances and incorporating those experiences into pioneering works of abstraction.

“Pelton possessed a strong will to remain true to her vision despite poverty and marginalization,” art historian Susan L. Aberth writes in a Desert Transcendentalist catalogue essay. “It is time to realize that she was not alone in her quest to capture the esoteric in a more abstract idiom, but part of a trajectory of women artists who will undoubtedly become better known and eventually be given their proper art historical due.”

As a painter, Pelton found an independence from male-dominated art movements and religion. Desert Transcendentalist shifts the longstanding narrative about American modern art to include a long-overlooked woman who embraced both visual and spiritual experimentation.

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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