I’ve recently returned to painting and, searching for inspiration, ran across Agnes Pelton’s extraordinary transcendental paintings, images full of energy balanced with a cool serenity. She has quickly become one of my favorite painters.
Agnes Lawrence Pelton was born in 1881 to American parents, William and Florence Pelton, in Stuttgart, Germany. She spent her early childhood in Europe before moving to Brooklyn with her mother when she was seven. Florence Pelton ran The Pelton School of Music out of their home and kept food on the table by teaching piano, as well as German and French. William Pelton overdosed on morphine at his brother’s home in Louisiana when his daughter was nine.
Agnes Pelton graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1900, continuing her study of painting with Arthur Wesley Dow, who also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. His emphasis on structure, imagination and non-naturalistic color deeply affected both women. Pelton referred to her early works as “imaginative paintings“, “moods of nature symbolically expressed” that exhibited humanity in harmony with nature and experimented with natural light. She often dressed in flowing gowns with flowers twisted into her hair and set up her studio in Greenwich Village, a hotbed for political radicals and avant-garde artists.
In 1919, Pelton made a visit to Taos, New Mexico, as a guest of the colorful Mabel Dodge Luhan, who built the image and brand of “Southwestern Modernist Art” by inviting artists to her home and promoting their work. Here Pelton painted realistic portraits and romantic desert landscapes. These paintings honed her technique and sold and showed well, but her true calling was to paint inner visions rather than realistic representational scenes. Enchanted by the desert but, most likely, uncomfortable with fitting in to a commercial, mainstream artistic movement, especially one so aggressively shepherded by a personality like Luhan, she returned to New York to be near her mother. After Florence died in 1920, Pelton took up residence in a historic windmill on Long Island, seeking solitude and deeper abstraction, still heavily influenced by nature. It was here in the winter of 1926 that her first introspective, abstract paintings were born. She also traveled heavily, feeling herself to be a bit of a nomad. In 1932, the windmill was sold. Homeless at the age of 50, Pelton decided to travel across the country to Cathedral City, California, intending on a short stay. She would live out the rest of her life in the California desert.
The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.
In 1938, a group of artists based in Taos calling themselves the Transcendental Painting Group contacted Pelton. They were inspired and excited by her work and wondered if she would become their first president, sort of a patron saint for spiritual abstract painting. She accepted, and for five years she had an artistic community. The Transcendental Painters sought “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” The group broke up in 1943 as World War II made life difficult for everyone. Pelton’s work became more personal and abstract, and she receded not only from the art world, but from society in general. She had no interest in promoting her art, and died largely forgotten in 1961 at the age of eighty. Recently, her work has been rediscovered and promoted. I am very excited about a traveling exhibition originating at the Phoenix Museum of Art this spring called Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. It will tour to the Whitney Museum in New York City, The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and to the Palm Springs Art Museum. I’d like to see it, wouldn’t you?
What I love so much about Pelton’s painting is its serene luminosity. Her light is powerful and energetic but remains benevolent and nurturing. She had a profound interest in spirituality and in finding common ground with other cultures. Heavily influenced by numerology, spiritualism and yoga, her work lies at the beginning of what would become the New Age Movement There is something very feminine and abundant about the portrayal of her inner world. At a time when many modernist painters were paring things down to straight lines and redactive images, her work is refreshing in its roundness and expressivity. Organized and elegant, she never overwhelms the eye, although she has a lively sense of color. World War II must have been a great challenge, yet she remains strong and hopeful in her painting, as if presenting a vision of healthy humanity undimmed despite pain and difficulty. What a refreshing vision for any age!