Agnes Pelton’s otherworldly symbolic abstractions go on view at the Phoenix Art Museum before touring the country.
When Gilbert Vicario arrived at the Phoenix Art Museum three years ago, one of the first things he did was walk through the institution’s galleries. Vicario, who was previously on staff at the Des Moines Art Center, had become the Selig Family chief curator at the Arizona museum and wanted to familiarize himself with the collection he would be working with. It was in the American galleries that he made a discovery. Hung between works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Florine Stettheimer was a painting by Agnes Pelton, an obscure American modernist painter who was completely unknown to him. “She immediately got my attention,” says Vicario. “I thought, ‘Wow, who is this person?’”
Vicario’s meet-cute with the Pelton painting would become the first step in the long process of organizing “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” an exhibition currently on view at the Phoenix Art Museum. “It all came together the moment I saw the painting on the wall—literally,” says Vicario. “I can always go through moments of doubt, but good artists and exhibition ideas tend to stick in my head, and in this instance I knew I had to dive in.”
The exhibition, which puts more than 40 paintings on view, is the first survey of Pelton’s work in over 23 years. After it closes in Phoenix on September 8, it will travel to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California.
The show will likely be a revelation to many museum-goers, and Pelton is poised for her own Hilma Af Klint moment. Like the Swedish visionary abstractionist, who is the subject of a blockbuster Guggenheim exhibition that will be in the final weeks of its celebrated run at the time of this publication, Pelton is a woman artist whose work was both pioneering and under-recognized by the art world at large. And as with af Klint, a mystic whose occult spirituality informed her revolutionary abstract compositions, Pelton’s interest in esoteric subjects such as Theosophy, Agni Yoga, and numerology is reflected in her ethereal paintings.
Pelton was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1881. Her family moved briefly to Basel, Switzerland, before settling permanently in the United States in 1888. She attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was included in the historic Armory Show of 1913 but ultimately eschewed the mainstream art world and moved to Cathedral City, Calif., in 1932. She would stay there until her death in 1961.
Pelton began what the exhibition describes as her “symbolic abstractions” while in New York in the mid-1920s. But in Cathedral City, a Coachella Valley town wedged between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, the entirety of her painting practice, which included landscapes and portraits in addition to her more abstract work, took on a more defined shape. Pelton’s more conventional desert landscapes became a fixture of her oeuvre, supporting her financially and gleaning comparisons to O’Keeffe (they both painted the desert, but they also shared a teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow). “Pelton writes about how she found deep satisfaction in her landscapes, almost as much as in her abstractions,” says Vicario. “She painted a lot of smoke trees, and there’s something magic about them.”
Magic as the landscapes may be, they are not a part of “Desert Transcendentalist.” Instead, Vicario focused on the symbolic abstractions, a series of glowing orbs, glittering skies, atmospheric horizon lines, and liminal veils of color. Painted over the course of several decades, some of these works feel like compositions of pure ethereal light and shadow with no terrestrial referent, like the haunting Mother of Silence (1933, oil on canvas). Others feel powerfully linked to nature, seeming almost like offerings being made to the earth, like the luminous Sand Storm (1932, oil on canvas). Others still are like landscapes of the mind, making manifest interior beliefs, like Departure (1952, oil on canvas), which feels reminiscent of Hindu Tantra paintings. The series, though by no means conventional, is nevertheless grounded in the visual language of Modernism, making its overt spirituality all the more spellbinding.
Pelton was briefly involved with the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), which was founded in Santa Fe in 1938 by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson. The short-lived group (it disbanded in 1942 due to World War II), used the principles of non-objective art as a launch pad for conveying spiritual truths. Like Pelton, members of the group were interested in the occult, particularly in Theosophy, a movement founded by Russian writer and mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 19th century, and Eastern mysticism. Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter, peace activist, and proponent of Agni Yoga, a practice that considered fire to be a guiding force, was important to both Pelton and the TPG.
Though Pelton’s work seems closely aligned with that of the group, her involvement with the TPG may have been historically over-emphasized. “Even now people will make reference to Pelton being influenced by the group other than the other way around,” says Vicario. “Through letters, Jonson, whom she was in contact with as early as 1933, was trying to woo her to be the honorary president of the group.” The artist frequently sent work to New Mexico to be shown in the TPG’s exhibitions, though she never attended a show. In fact, says Vicario, Pelton would send Jonson installation instructions for her work that were in colored pencil and drawn to scale. Vicario discovered examples of these late into the project, when combing through the archives of Margaret Stainer, a scholar who published a book on Pelton in the late 1980s. “We put these instructions in a case in the exhibition,” says Vicario. “Three of the paintings she illustrates are included in the show, but we don’t know where the other ones are.”
Though the symbolic abstractions are now considered Pelton’s calling card, they were hardly catalogued, and many were lost to time after the artist’s death. Of the 100 works she painted in the ongoing series, only about 60 are known. “She had no family and never married,” says Vicario, “so some works were probably destroyed and others probably ended up in resale shops—that continued up until this last year.” Things began to change in February 2018, when Fires in Space, a 1938 painting that is featured in the Phoenix show, came up for sale at an auction house in Hudson, N.Y., with an estimate of $4,000–8,000. It sold for a redemptive $276,00, easily setting an auction record for the artist.
The presence of Pelton’s work in several museum collection underscores that she is not an entirely unknown artist but a largely unseen one—something Vicario knows all too well. “Somehow, I recently discovered that there was a Pelton in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center—and I worked there for six years and never knew,” says the curator. “The painting never left the basement; she was never allowed to hang in the gallery.” This is not atypical, Vicario says. “There’s a lot of museums that own Peltons and they never get installed.” Since it moved to its new location, the Whitney has been showing the two Peltons in its collection, Untitled (1931) and Sea Change (1931), which has widely increased the artist’s visibility. (A pair of socks picturing Untitled is even for sale in the museum’s gift shop.)
Pelton’s process often involved meditation. Suddenly, or sometimes overnight, something would appear to her and inspire a painting. Though she was careful and assiduous when plotting out works, often making notes about colors and ideas, she didn’t work in theories. “In the early abstractions there’s a very pure sense of light and vibration that gets tempered later on with her interest in the horizon line,” says Vicario. “Moving forward it becomes the anchor for her paintings, as if they’re grounded in a stage set.” The sci-fi landscape-esque Future (1941, oil on canvas), which comes to the show from the Palm Springs Art Museum, is a prime example of the horizon stabilizing Pelton’s composition.
The latter portion of the Phoenix exhibition showcases her multifarious depictions of a glowing orb. This section will include the arresting Light Center (1947–48, oil on canvas), which features an ovoid force field of glowing energy at its center. Of the orbs, Vicario says, “That was her way of trying to understand the afterlife—the idea of going through the light to the other side.”
By Sarah E. Fensom