“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist”

The American painter Agnes Pelton’s quasi-abstract symbolic landscapes enchant utterly. Sinuous organic line, vivid gemlike colour and lapidary detail lend irresistible charm to her mid-century canvases of limpid skies with burning stars and luminous otherworldly phenomena, often hovering above rolling dunes, majestic peaks or mysterious bodies of water. Her meticulous—occasionally fussy— depictions of ethereal apparitions seem to perfectly triangulate the visionary abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky, the visionary topographies and flora of Georgia O’Keeffe and the visionary, well, cartoons of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

Pelton (1881–1961) grew up in Brooklyn, studied with Arthur Wesley Dow (who later taught O’Keeffe, six years Pelton’s junior) and began her art career painting late symbolist scenes of waifish maidens in tonalist outdoor settings à la her friend Arthur B Davies. Two of these hung in the 1913 “Armory Show,” but the Whitney’s current retrospective of Pelton’s work, the first in a quarter-century, includes only one example, Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917, in which a willowy blonde confronts a songbird on a flowering shrub in front of a backdrop of swooping arcs of diaphanous violet light, half art nouveau, half cubo-futurism.

At the age of 40, Pelton left the city for the then fairly isolated and rural east end of Long Island, living in a windmill and beginning the largely solitary existence that would last the rest of her life. She became increasingly occupied with various occult belief systems, including New Thought, astrology and, most importantly, Theosophy and its offshoots, particularly Agni Yoga, promulgated by the itinerant Russian artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena. Pelton also left behind her previous sentimental retardataire style to pursue a more au courant modernism. By 1926 she had embarked upon a series of paintings that make up the bulk of the Whitney show, her spiritual abstractions that gave form to concepts and images derived from her esoteric studies and meditation. Star Gazer, 1929, for example, pictures a frosted pink lotus bud, encased in a transparent glass calyx and growing from softly curved misty mountains kissed by the sunrise towards the distant rayed morning star in the indigo vault above. We might not pin down the vision to an exact source, although it clearly relates to an Eastern-derived mysticism. Yet, for a contemporary viewer, the crystalline quality of its rendering, its sense of a deeply held belief expressed in beautiful poetic form, gives it a palpable magic.

In 1932, Pelton moved to the California desert, to Cathedral City, a small town outside of Palm Springs. In that even more remote locale, and fairly late in life, she really came into her own as an artist. The vocabulary of her always modestly sized canvases grew even more idiosyncratic. Her compositions, too, gained a kind of off-kilter oddness that somehow makes them less precious, less expected. A central gallery at the Whitney with slate-blue walls features nine pictures, mostly of things floating in crepuscular skies: a glowing orange urn emitting smoky ribbons (Even Song, 1934), a pink fan of feathers (The Primal Wing, 1933), a radiant cosmic egg (Light Center, 1947–48), a seven-pointed anemone with a pendant drop (Birthday, 1943), twinkling stars with the trajectories of their movements (Orbits, 1934), a squat apparitional figure that seems part Buddha, part Michelin Man and part Gertrude Stein (Mother of Silence, 1933).

Despite the ostensible intensity and seriousness of Pelton’s spiritual feeling and the exquisiteness of individual works, seeing her pictures en masse reveals that she often repeated a limited set of tropes. And transposing mystic thoughts or trance-induced hallucinations in abstract terms could result in an illustrational aspect to her paintings that sometimes approaches the diagrammatic or, deadlier, the whimsical. Return, 1940, features a ghostly see-through bird soaring over an oasis, a star in its beak. It could easily have been taken from another work produced in southern California that same year, Fantasia, which, to be fair, includes abstract sequences primarily conceived by the avant-garde modernist filmmaker Oskar Fischinger. But Pelton’s proximity to the popular and the twee produces her work’s gravest flaw: the envisioning of her sincere belief, in which we want to partake, often appears to the noninitiate as kitsch.

Pelton’s most productive period overlapped briefly with the history of Canadian art. In 1938, she became honorary president of the Transcendental Painting Group, a short-lived association of likeminded artists based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that included the then expatriate Lawren Harris. No evidence suggests that the two met in person, but we can see affinities in their shared interests in things Theosophical, in seeking a visual analogy for spiritual experience and in translating reverence for the natural world into modernist abstraction. We could readily take the vestigial landscapes that appear at the bottom of many of Pelton’s abstract paintings, in fact, for details of Harris’s late Group of Seven works. Perhaps an even better comparison to Pelton might be Emily Carr, another woman who decided to go it alone to pursue a spiritual and occultist communion with nature through modernist painting.

Organized by Gilbert Vicario at the Phoenix Art Museum, the Pelton exhibition opened in New York shortly before the city shut down because of the pandemic. The ability to revisit these crisp and serene canvases again after a spring and summer of isolation at home arrives as a gift. But as California burns and we further destroy the glories of the earth that gave inspiration and solace to Pelton and artists like her, her yearning images seem ever more fragile and distant from us, her world view more irretrievable. The pleasures of her paintings feel a lot like melancholy. ❚

“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from March 13 to November 1, 2020.

Joseph R Wolin is a curator and critic in New York whose writing has appeared in Time Out New York, Glasstire and Garage Magazine, among other publications. He was the co-curator of “Living Together,” a year-long series of performance art, exhibitions, concerts, readings, lectures, workshops and film screenings at various locations in Miami in 2018, organized by the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College.