The Transcendental Painting Group aimed to convey spiritual truths through abstract art.
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In 1938 in Santa Fe, a group of artists came together to do the exact opposite of what was expected of them: They ignored the stunning Southwestern desert landscapes, painted no tender scenes of traditional Indian life, and in general turned their gaze inward instead of outward. They called themselves the Transcendental Painting Group. The pictures they were making were completely abstract or mostly abstract, in the “non-objective” vein espoused by Wassily Kandinsky, who was a huge influence on them all.
Strange colors swirled around and into each other in even stranger contrasts as biomorphic forms shared undimensioned spaces with hard-edged geometric forms, all bathed in a “light never seen on land or sea.”
Out of the depths of the Depression, in a world about to be engulfed by war, the Transcendental painters were striving to communicate a vision of eternal truths, “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world,” as their manifesto put it, “through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative worlds that are idealistic and spiritual.” This endeavor would likely have failed or evaporated into the realm of the airy-fairy if the artists had not been as rigorous as they were in their dedication to hard work and precise technique, with a firm grounding in mathematics and color theory.
The leading lights and founders of the TPG were Emil Bisttram, a transplant from New York City, and Raymond Jonson (pronounced “Jones-son”), from Portland, Ore. Bisttram, born on the Hungarian-Romanian border in 1895, emigrated to the U.S. with his parents and grew up in the tenements of the Lower East Side, where he distinguished himself as a tough street kid rather than a budding visionary. He joined a gang and was expelled from school for fighting. Soon, though, he went straight, went through a vocational school, and got a job as an illustrator for an advertising agency. Meanwhile Bisttram studied art privately with a teacher, Howard Giles, then went West in 1930, stopping at Taos and proceeding to Mexico, where he studied mural painting with Diego Rivera. (In later years Bisttram would execute many mural commissions in New Mexico.)
Jonson, born in 1891, the son of a Swedish-American minister, never wanted to be anything other than an artist. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and while he was there, in 1913, he had the opportunity to see the traveling Armory Show, which had debuted in New York and exposed Americans for the first time to European modernism and, in particular, abstraction. Between 1912 and 1917 Jonson was a lighting and stage designer for the Chicago Little Theatre, where he pioneered a minimalist approach and also invented the nine-switch dimmer board, which revolutionized stage lighting techniques. At the peak of his success in the theater, Jonson moved to the Santa Fe area, in search of a more contemplative environment.
Arriving in northern New Mexico, both men were following in the footsteps of a previous generation of painters—especially the so-called Taos School—who found inspiration in the region’s unique climate, geography, quality of light and cultural mix. One ingredient in that mix was a lively interest in the occult, and particularly in Theosophy, a movement founded in the late 19th century by a Russian writer and mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophy, while absorbing and synthesizing a variety of ideas from European and Eastern mysticism and symbolic lore, emphasized the right of the individual to choose his or her own path to truth irrespective of dogma and tradition. This openness combined with speculative boldness naturally appealed to creative artists, prominent among them Blavatsky’s fellow-Russian Kandinsky. Another Russian, the painter and peace activist Nicholas Roerich, was also strongly influenced by Theosophy (as well as Buddhism) and had a presence in New Mexico. He visited Santa Fe in 1921, and in the ’30s a gallery based on his philosophical ideas was set up and served as a gathering place for the TPG.
Bisttram was fascinated by philosophy, the occult, mysticism and mathematics even before he left New York. A reading list he compiled in 1930 shows that he was immersed in Theosophy, Swedenborg, Plato, Emerson, and Claude Bragdon, an American architect who became a prominent writer on the then-popular subject of the fourth dimension. Bragdon argued that a higher dimension of space could actually be visualized—contrary to the consensus of mathematicians—and serve as a method for artists to represent orders of reality invisible to the eye, and by extension, higher levels of consciousness. Bisttram was also a devotee of the theory of Dynamic Symmetry advocated by Yale professor Jay Hambidge, who broke down composition into a scheme of squares and rectangles derived from them according to the “golden ratio” (1.618 to 1), which Hambidge claimed was the hitherto-lost secret of ancient Greek art. So intense was Bisttram’s dedication to the power of number that he changed the spelling of his name from Bistran to Bisttram, partly at the urging of a numerologist and partly because the double “t” suggested the shape of the Greek letter pi, symbol for a number (approximately 3.14) of great mathematical and scientific significance.
All this is not to say that Bisttram was a crank. He was an extremely thorough, detail-oriented artist who absorbed these influences into his imaginative work in a way that was anything but haphazard. A major painting of his, Oversoul, circa 1941, takes color theory, the architect’s T-square, the cosmic-egg symbol common to many religious traditions, and a representation of a starry sky and integrates these things beautifully into what amounts to a diagram of the universe. Not surprisingly, Bisttram was as enthusiastic a teacher as he was an artist, always eager to communicate his theoretical apparatus, vast learning and painting technique to students. He started several schools: the Taos School of Art in 1932 and then another in Phoenix during the war and finally the Bisttram School of Art in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1951.
Jonson, too, was a passionate teacher and encourager of young artists. He became a professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and also a curator, establishing a modernist collection there during the 1930s despite opposition to the acquisition of abstract art. Eventually, in 1950, he set up the Jonson Gallery on the campus, to show not only his own work but that of his students, other modernists, and under-recognized local artists. It still exists today, serving also as an archive of documents on New Mexico modernism and the TPG in particular.
Jonson’s work is less mathematically precise than his friend Bisttram’s. Many of his works depict what seem like lines of energy rippling across the picture space. Sometimes his forms have a plasticity that makes it seems as if we are looking at wildly colored, animated Art Deco architectural details, matter transfigured into something more than physical. This feeling of transfiguration was evidently a touchstone for Jonson. “We never enjoy or appreciate those things we can have without any effort or strong sacrifice,” he wrote. “For myself, I would gladly sacrifice all physical for one perfect complete existence of spiritual emotion.”
The other TPG members were Lawren Harris, Stuart Walker, Ed Garman, Horace Towner Pierce, Florence Miller Pierce, William Lumpkins, Robert Gibbroek, Agnes Pelton and Dane Rudhyar—the latter a writer and explicator of TPG ideas rather than a painter himself. Harris, a Canadian Theosophist, had been a member of the Group of Seven that inaugurated modernism in Canada. Walker was a promising young artist who died of illness in 1940 at the age of 36. His paintings allude to the experience of synesthesia, combining musical and graphic elements in a manner that suggests they are interchangeable or at least intimately related, in an industrial style slightly reminiscent of Charles Sheeler. Garman, about a generation younger than the founders of the group, developed a particularly hard-edged vocabulary of shape and color; some of his paintings, full of arrows and paths, seem almost like street signs for a town in the fourth dimension. Pelton’s paintings are sensitively conceived and often refer more explicitly to nature than do the works of her fellow TPGers.
In their day, the Transcendental painters were well respected in the art world, despite their peripheral position, geographically speaking. They exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and also at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Guggenheim) in 1940. However, while the artists had long careers, their official solidarity as a group lasted only until 1942, when war duties and pressures caused them to disperse.
A number of these artists’ works are currently on view at Addison Rowe Gallery in Santa Fe, in a show titled “The Art of the Transcendental Painters.” Owner Victoria Addison says, “This work speaks to us more easily today than it would have 50 years ago; that’s how brilliant and far ahead these artists were. More and more people are drawn to it now than even 10 years ago—I find that really exciting.” In New York, David Findlay Jr Gallery has been championing the TPG for the past two decades. Director Lee Findlay Potter describes the group as “a groundbreaking and influential American modernist force in the 1930s and ’40s,” and adds, “In bridging representational and gestural abstraction, the gallery continues to find an ever-expanding audience for TPG work.” Living up to their name, Transcendental paintings have the power to make viewers see things differently, to turn their gaze inward. Without a doubt they represent a unique thread within modernist abstraction.
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