Sunday, April 11, 2021

Agnes Pelton's Desert Transcendentalism

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), a little-known 20th century American artist and mystic, is finally being rediscovered. In 2019, an exhibition of 45 paintings was organized by Gilbert Vicario at the Phoenix Art Museum. It traveled to New Mexico in the latter part of that year, and opened triumphantly at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City on March 13th, 2020. Two days later, the museum shut down along with the rest of the world on account of a new pandemic. Over a year later, the exhibit has reopened to the public at its final destination, the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Pelton had an interesting family background, detailed by Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell in an informative interview with Andrew Goldstein at artnet (click here). [After a family scandal in the late 19th century], "the Tiltons sent their daughter, Florence, to Europe...where she met a wealthy expatriate from Louisiana who was something of a ne’er-do-well, and they had Agnes Pelton in Stuttgart. They moved back to Brooklyn, but Florence’s husband was unhappy and Agnes rarely saw her father. He died when she was 10 from a morphine overdose." Florence supported the two of them by opening a music school in Brooklyn where they mingled with the bohemian artistic intelligentsia of the day. Florence died in 1920 and in 1922, Agnes moved alone to an abandoned windmill on eastern Long Island. (Above is the 1928 Ecstasy.)
Pelton was deeply drawn to religious mysticism, principally through Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophist movement combining Eastern and Western traditions. A fascinating painter/archeologist/anthropologist Russian couple, Nicholas and Helena Roerich, brought Agni Yoga from Central Asia to the West, and Agnes became one of its adherents. (The above painting is the 1932 Messengers.)
The American Southwest, particularly New Mexico and Southern California, was a major Theosophist gathering spot in the first half of the 20th century, with Pelton visiting Mabel Dodge Luhan's artistic salon in Taos and spiritual gatherings in Pasadena in 1928. (The above painting is 1933's The Primal Wing.)
On one of those Pasadena visits, she stumbled onto the Coachella Valley where she immediately felt in tune with the light, the twin mountain peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, and the overall energy of the place. (The above painting is 1934's Orbits.)
In 1931, at the age of 50, she moved into a cabin in what was then the village of Cathedral City, six miles down a two-lane road from the small town of Palm Springs. (The painting above is 1942's My Cabin.)
She then set about creating her unique, abstract style of paintings with identifiable shapes and images. Gaskell at the Whitney relates: "Once she establishes her vocabulary in 1925, she does not stray from it. She didn’t paint for other people. She didn’t paint for the marketplace. In fact, to make money, she painted realistic portraits and desert paintings that she sold to tourists." (The painting above is 1938's Red and Blue.)
Gaskell continues: "The abstract work was the real work, and it was difficult for her to do. She would sometimes only be able to paint one day a week. It wasn’t as if she would go into her studio and think, okay, today I’m going to have an inspiration. She had to wait for those inspirations to come." (The painting above is 1940's Challenge.)
In conjunction with the "transcendental" paintings, the Palm Springs Art Museum has added an exhibit of some of those realist landscapes designed for the tourists, including 1950's Smoke Tree above.
My friend Grant Wilson actually prefers her landscapes to her strange, flat, mystical abstracts.
Seeing a whole collection of the transcendentals is disconcerting, partly because they look so much like New Age, hippie-dippie art of the 1960s and 1970s. (Above is 1943's Awakening (Memory of Father).)
The oddness is that her paintings predate those eras by 20 to 50 years, and have an originality and integrity that is unmistakable. (Above is 1952's Idyll.)
Haskell again: "Most of her paintings are very different, she never worked in series. Because she brought them out of her own visions, each time it was a different experience with a different set of problems." The Palm Springs Art Museum just reopened a couple of weeks ago for the first time since the pandemic began. The exhibit will be up until September, so if you're in the Coachella Valley between now and then, do check it out. Plus, admission is free every Thursday from 5 to 7PM. (The infinite circles in the painting above are 1954's Departure.)

1 comment:

janinsanfran said...