Raymond Jonson's City Forces

Raymond Jonson (1891-1982): City Forces, 1932, oil on canvas

The Art of the Transcendental Painters, Addison Rowe Gallery, 229 E. Marcy St., 982-1533; through Sept. 6

The Transcendental painting group formed one of the most prominent of the modernist art movements in New Mexico, and it embraced abstraction to a higher degree than most. The group stated its position in its manifesto clearly and succinctly: “The word Transcendental has been chosen as a name for the Group because it best expresses its aim, which is 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’s work was influenced by earlier movements and schools, including Cubism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus. Although abstraction was their primary concern, the Transcendentalists often worked figuratively, a fact borne out by the work on exhibit in The Art of the Transcendental Painters at Addison Rowe Gallery. The show demonstrates how these artists — Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram, Stuart Walker, Howard Cook, and Beatrice Mandelman among them — carried out their mission. The movement was short-lived, shining for a brief time in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but its influence continued long after the movement came to an end.

Leading the pack was Bisttram, perhaps the best represented of the artists included at Addison Rowe. Early and late examples of his work provide a surprising glimpse into the depth and range of his artistic concerns. Bisttram’s early work included landscapes and figurative imagery, but his Transcendental work was often nonobjective. He relied on geometry as an underlying structure for his paintings, and several examples, including later abstractions that on the surface have more of an Abstract Expressionist appearance, retain this structure.

Jonson’s oils and Walker’s watercolors bear similarities: the repetition of forms, for example, and gradations of color. Works from the early 1930s such as Walker’s Afternoon and Jonson’s City Forces incorporate figurative components. Like Bisttram, Jonson’s early works included landscapes of the Southwest. Several paintings by Bisttram, Jonson, Louis Ribak, and Mandelman date from the 1950s and ’60s, long after the heyday of the Transcendental movement, but the focus on abstraction remains. Jonson’s Polymer #1, a late piece from 1967, explores minimalist composition.

The strength of the exhibit lies in its scope. One can trace a thread — from traditional landscapes and still lifes to tightly constructed abstract works and then, postwar, to gestural action paintings and minimalist imagery — through all the bodies of work, particularly by Bisttram and Jonson, who co-founded the movement.

Florence Miller Pierce is a glaring omission, although the gallery tried to procure examples of her Transcendental work. Agnes Pelton is also absent, but Pelton, who embraced the movement’s more spiritual and idealistic artistic impulses, is quoted in the catalog.

The gallery provides several examples by Ed Garman in a variety of mediums. Like Bisttram, Garman took an interest in geometry but not as an underlying pattern. He was interested in spatial configurations and color harmonies between reductive forms. Garman honored European modernist movements, including Constructivism (minus the Bolshevik political concerns).

The nonobjective abstraction championed by the Transcendentalists influenced the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the American art scene in the decades that followed. Howard Cook’s works provide good examples of this abstraction, but his contribution in this regard is often overlooked. It is time, perhaps, for a reevaluation of his Transcendental and later works.

Despite the absence of Pierce and Pelton, this overview of Transcendental paintings is an effective presentation. It’s not arranged chronologically, but it still provides opportunities to compare and contrast works made before and after the movement. The historical context and spare but pertinent wall text, quoting relevant statements by several of the artists, put the movement and its intentions squarely in perspective.