The only painting by Agnes Lawrence Pelton in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art looks something like a landscape. A horizon line separates the lower portion, rendered in earth tones, from a deep blue sky accented by seven stars. But on the left side of the painting, a face in profile seems to float above a gentle, rolling hill. In the sky, a tubular object that resembles a trumpet seems to bellow, as though sounding from heaven, and calling on the dead to rise.
Pelton painted Awakening (Memory of Father) in 1943, when she was 62 years old. Her estranged father, William Halsey Pelton, died of a morphine overdose when she was 10 years old. “The painting that the New Mexico Museum of Art owns is the only one we know of that was dedicated to her father,” says Gilbert Vicario, Selig Family chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum. “Her grandfather was a sugar baron and they lived quite well. But, ultimately, her mother and father separated. He was manic depressive. It’s believed that a lot of that contributed to her having more of an inward life.”
Vicario is the curator of the traveling exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, which opens at the New Mexico Museum of Art on Friday, Oct. 4. The show, which will be on exhibit through Jan. 5, is the first major survey of Pelton’s work in more than 20 years and features more than 40 paintings spanning her career. It premiered at the Phoenix Art Museum in March. After the New Mexico stop, the show travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it opens March 13.
Although the exhibition has generated new interest in Pelton’s work, she remains a somewhat obscure figure in 20th-century American art. Part of the reason is that Pelton avoided the mainstream art scenes of her day, withdrawing instead to the California desert. “Agnes was very solitary,” Vicario says, and despite the term “transcendentalist” in the title of the exhibit, he says she can’t really be placed into any movement or group.
Pelton is commonly associated with the Transcendentalist Painting Group, co-founded in New Mexico by artists Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram in 1938, and disbanded in 1942. Pelton by that time had been an artist for decades, ever since her student days at New York’s Pratt Institute in the late 1890s. She continued to paint until her death from liver cancer in 1961. “People always seem to lump her into the TPG group,” Vicario says. “But, in fact, the TPG artists were actually inspired by Agnes. Raymond Jonson urged Agnes to join the group. There was a letter that I found in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art where he’s basically urging her to be its first honorary president.”
Long before the TPG was formed, Pelton’s work embodied the artists’ ideals — which were, as stated in the group’s manifesto, “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world through new concepts of space, light and design, upon planes that are termed idealistic and spiritual.”
Eventually, her work evolved from figurative, representational imagery into nonobjective abstraction, and then a merging of the two.
Pelton was born in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents. Her early years were spent living in Germany; Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Basel, Switzerland; and Brooklyn, New York. She and her mother, Florence Pelton, made a permanent move to Brooklyn in 1888, where her mother opened the Pelton School of Music.
Scandal followed the family, owing to an incident known as the Beecher-Tilton affair. In 1872, Henry Ward Beecher, the famous Brooklyn pastor, had an affair with Pelton’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, the wife of the well-known abolitionist Theodore Tilton. Two years later, Tilton filed adultery charges against Beecher, resulting in a protracted and widely publicized trial in 1875. In an essay included in the exhibition catalogue (Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, Hirmer Verlag, 220 pages, $50), Erika Doss, chair of the American Studies department at the University of Notre Dame, writes that the case was “the most infamous scandal of the Gilded Age.”
This incident, and her father’s death, had a tremendous impact on Pelton’s life and career as an artist. In his catalogue essay “Agnes Pelton: Transcendental Symbolist,” Michael Zakian, director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, writes that she was “driven by a pressing psychological need” and was “scarred by a history of family tragedy.”
Zakian goes on to write that “as a result, she grew up withdrawn, uncertain, and painfully shy; forbidden to speak of her family’s past, she dwelled under a cloud of repressive silence. As an adult she sought escape in the only refuges available to her — her mind and her paintings.”
Pelton was 14 when she enrolled in art courses at Pratt, studying under famed art educator Arthur Wesley Dow. She later studied landscape painting in Old Lyme, Connecticut, under William Langson Lathrop. Although she did continue to paint landscapes off and on throughout her career, she is best known the semi-abstract works in which she explored mystical and spiritual themes.
These go back as far as 1910, when she began a series she called Imaginative Paintings, which is characterized by the presence of young, pixie-like women, often in dark, stygian forests. The Imaginative Paintings may strike you as metaphors for the artist’s own spiritual journey, and her search for a way out of the darkness of her past. The series is exemplified by a painting called Vine Wood, which she exhibited at New York’s Armory Show in 1913. A brighter, more hopeful composition, the Maxfield Parrish-like Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), with a similar female figure, is included in the traveling exhibit.
The seeking expressed in her early work was part of a lifelong search for meaning that led her to develop interests in a wide variety of esoteric subjects. She explored astrology, theosophy, and Agni Yoga, which practitioners believe is a path to attain a state of divine consciousness. She embraced the notion of the flamelike consciousness, and it’s not surprising to see similar imagery make its way into her paintings. One example, also in the show, is a painting called Fires in Space (1938), in which 12 bright, fiery, starlike forms burst in white, yellow, and orange across a dusky purple sky.
“That’s ultimately what drew her out to California,” Vicario says of Pelton’s spiritualist inclinations. “She was reading Madame Blavatsky, she was reading all this Eastern philosophy. It never really jived with what the rest of the art world was focused on.” Theosophy, which is a spiritualist tradition founded by Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, is an amalgam of Eastern and Western philosophies that holds that direct apprehension of god can be attained through spiritual ecstasy and intuition. Agni Yoga, with its focus on fire as a guiding force, is considered a neo-theosophical religious doctrine. Vicario says it inspired much of the work included in the exhibit.
By the 1920s, Pelton abandoned the figure and focused on paintings that were entirely abstract. But by 1932, the year she moved permanently to Cathedral City in California’s Coachella Valley, the landscape was becoming a prominent feature of what Vicario considers her mature work.
“I think Pelton had a very unique formula,” he says. “In my mind, the works are almost present as staged scenes that are grounded in a horizon line. There’s always a view up into the sky, for the most part, and these elements that really illustrate how she thought of the natural world, and the world beyond that. By the 1940s, you really see an attempt at manifesting this suggestion of a portal.”
Day (1935) is a prime example. Dark mountainous forms slope down from the right of the canvas. Wispy, cloud-like forms swirl through the sky where a single star hangs like a beacon. But off-center, toward the right side of the composition, a bright, featureless rectangle also hovers, like a doorway to an unknown dimension.
That rectangular form shows up in later work, such as Light Center (1947-1948), where it appears almost like a shaft of light, framing an ethereal, egg-like oval that hovers over a serene landscape. Pelton, who rarely painted the same composition twice, revisited this painting in the final year of her life. In light of its timing, so close to her death, the second version — also titled Light Center — seems to carry with it an air of finality, as though the door was now open for her to pass through. ◀
▼ Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist
▼ New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave.
▼ Free public reception 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4; by admission through Jan. 5, 2020
▼ General admission $12 with discounts available; 505-476-5072, nmartmuseum.org