Rediscovery: Agnes Pelton at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Agnes Pelton, Untitled, 1931. Oil on canvas, 36 3/16 × 24 3/16 in. (91.9 × 61.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Modern Painting and Sculpture Committee.

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

Whitney Museum

March 13 - November 1, 2020

By NINA MDIVANI, October 2020

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist on view at The Whitney Museum until November 1, is a travelling exhibition, originally organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and curated by Gilbert Vicario. It is a first attempt by major museums to take a fresh look at Agnes Pelton (1881–1961), American modernist painter of transcendental spiritualism who has been largely forgotten for more then hundred years. Translucent, dynamic abstractions of Pelton gracefully feature rays, orbs, guiding stars, vessels, nebulous formations and essentially her own spiritual journey. We look at them through the lenses of this trying year and they take us to spaces within ourselves, a place of contemplative repose. And this exactly was Pelton’s life-long mission to take us there.

The exhibition is comprehensive in scope, chronologically following Pelton’s evolution through 45 works as she first searched for her palette and compositional sense, later becoming competent with free-flowing, fluid lines and minimalistic, yet powerful symbology. For her symbols Pelton found an inspiration in “Thought Forms,” book by Annie Besant published in 1901, determining quality of thought and emotions through particular colors. If looking at Pelton’s paintings through uses Besant’ lenses we are looking at self-renunciation, high ambitions, personal transcendence in the artist’s silent and yet far-reaching quests. Achingly beautiful Return, 1940 is a dreamlike meditation on a desert and an oasis in it. Soft rocks repeat the nebulous shape drifting in the sky, a memory of a winged creature returning to its roots. More well-known 1932 work Messengers is even more elusive to convey. Light is emanating in a cylindric shape and is crowned by stylized golden feathers. Trying to describe these works is the same as trying to describe Ravel’s music, meaning and value stubbornly evaporate in the process of transferring them. Yet, the exhibition convincingly traces Pelton’s evolution and accentuates why we should know more about her.

Born into an upper middle-class New York family, Pelton spent her childhood in Europe, returning to study at the Pratt Institute. After graduating in 1900 Pelton started off as an artist who painted “Imaginative Paintings,” aethereal canvases influenced by British romantic poets. Not unpleasant, but fairly common for the time, portraying static maidens in cloudy surroundings. First painting in the exhibition is 1917 Room Decoration in Purple and Grey is from this period. In a later diary entry, Pelton described these earlier works as “insincere and not real.” Nonetheless, throughout early 1920s Pelton was fairly successful, participating among 304 artists in the first Armory Show in 1913 and creating murals for important collectors of the day, Arthur Brisbane and Mable Dodge. After death of her mother, in 1921, Pelton moved to the semi-secluded windmill near Southampton, where she started on a completely different body of work, parts of which we can see today in the Whitney show. Throughout her life Pelton supported herself through painting children and landscape for tourists.

Installation view of Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 13–November 1, 2020). From left to right: Voyaging, 1931; Sea Change, 1931; Sand Storm, 1932; Return, 1940; Ahmi in Egypt, 1931. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Early disappointment in Christianity as a valid path for her soul pushed Pelton to turn to more esoteric forms of spirituality. Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky, Agni Yoga of Nikolas Roerich, New Thought Movement of Emma Curtis Hopkins were marginal spiritual movements that heavily influenced Pelton throughout her life. All of them emphasized personal journey, meditative and intuitive approach to achieving enlightenment into one’s own life, cultivating an ability to get closer to the divine reality, to hear what Pythagoras termed the harmony of spheres. Pelton’s lucid, effervescent works reflect this search and her individual process of finding. Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helene were of a particular influence to Pelton, as she revered Nicholas not only as a spiritual master, but also as her artistic mentor. Roerich (1874-1947) was an outstanding painter and stage designer, well-travelled and versed in Eastern as well as Western spiritual traditions he established Agni Yoga, “Path to Mergence with Divide Fire.” Influence of Roerich the artist is traced in Pelton’s works, in soft treatment of rocks and special attention paid to the sky and stars imagery, both very important to Roerich. His somber 1933 portrait Intimation is also on view. After encounter with the Roerichs Pelton delved even deeper into her spiritual art, her inner dream visions. Her works speak of a very individualized quest that was largely out of tune with the contemporary New York art scene throughout her professional career. At the time “Establishment narrative,” term of art historian Ann Gibson, was mostly devoted to Abstract Expressionism, its macho mark- and meaning-making. In Greenberg’s terms art was “happily devoid of religion or mysticism or politics” (1945) and Pelton was decidedly out of touch with the critical discourse. 

In 1932 aged fifty she moved to Cathedral City, a small town outside Palm Springs where she stayed for the rest of her life. In doing so Pelton pursued an independent life, path of Gertrude Stein and Georgia O’Keefe, following her calling. Not surprisingly she was less known outside her immediate community although she participated in exhibitions with the Transcendental Painting Group, at the San Diego Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Crocker Art Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The exhibition at the Whitney concludes with Pelton’s latest works, all of them tacitly referring to the final transformation that was about to happen to the artist: Light Center, 1960-61; Departure, 1952; Future, 1941; The Blest, 1941. The Blest stands out the most in its upward motion, a cloud or soul drifting upwards, producing an uplifting emotion in a viewer, full of empathy and peace. This room finalizes the show, but also creates an eloquent coda to Pelton’s life. Viewer is certain that the artist has achieved her goal; she found her path, and went all the way through to the uplifting white light in the final chamber.

In essence, Agnes Pelton could be an American response to the success of Hilma af Klimt and her ambitious esoteric projects. Pelton is more private, but not less eloquent, when finding inspiration in desert and in herself. Both inhabited a time and society ruled by men, where they needed spiritual realms to survive. WM

 

Nina Mdivani

Nina Mdivani is Georgiani-born and New York-based independent curator, writer and researcher. Her academic background covers International Relations and Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University, Mount Holyoke College and, most recently, Museum Studies from City University of New York. Nina's book, King is Female, published in October 2018 in Berlin by Wienand Verlag explores the lives of three Georgian women artists and is the first publication to investigate questions of the feminine identity in the context of the Eastern European historical, social, and cultural transformation of the last twenty years. Nina has contributed articles to Arte Fuse, Eastern European Film Bulletin, Indigo Magazine, Art Spiel. As curator and writer Nina is interested in discovering hidden narratives within dominant cultures with focus on minorities and migrations. You can find out more about her work at ninamdivani.com

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