Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Oil on canvas, 24-1/4 x 23 1/2 in. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum. Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation. (Courtesy: Whitney Museum of Art)

Looking back less than two weeks, the preview for this show was a bit sparsely attended—just days before every major museum in the country temporarily closed. Everything is different now. And looking at beautiful —to be blunt—pictures is sure to enjoy a Renaissance in itself, forthwith. Luckily—who knows how long we are in for—the show, organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and seen last winter at the New Mexico Museum of Art, is scheduled for a pretty long run at the Whitney and an additional stop at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

WHAT: Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist
WHERE: Whitney Museum of Art, New York, NY
WHEN: March 13—June 28, 2020 (Museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19)

Relatively small scale, with smoothed palette-blending surfaces, Pelton’s paintings should be viewed as close up as possible to consider the meditative inspirations of the artist fully. Collectively, the selections of works from 1917 to 1961, exude a dreamy quietism enhanced by a dusty twilight palette, delicate touch, and arabesque rhythms.  Pelton’s modest artistic recognition during her lifetime came mainly through association with the self-named Transcendentalist painters out of Sante Fe, AZ (c. 1938-1941), although she lived in the California desert near Palm Springs by then.   She was also a committed practitioner of Agni Yoga; her art was deeply informed by the spiritual component of this practice. This ethereal mien appears already in Pelton’s earlier work that was created in Europe, Brooklyn, and the pre-Abstract Expressionist Hamptons (Water Mill, NY).

In “Being” (1926), for example, a central, reverberating stretched oval can be perceived as a purely abstract illumination emerging from a swirling environment. Or, it centralizes a fantastic creature, recalling, here and elsewhere, contemporaneous Surrealist forms and those of progenitor Hieronymus Bosch—but without the fervent Freudian angst. Elsewhere, as in “Orbits” (1924), amoebic constellations, à la Miro, inflect music-motivated arrangements also explored by better-known early abstractionists like the towering Vasily Kandinsky.

Agnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 30 in. Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Concours d’Antiques, the Art Guild of the Oakland Museum of California. (Courtesy: Whitney Museum of Art)

Following the lead of her mother, Florence Pelton, who studied music at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music and operated the Pelton School of Music for 30 years, Agnes Pelton was also an accomplished pianist. She wrote that the implied movement in “Being” was analogous to a musical sequence and insinuated its import in many of her painting titles. In fact, the fluttering ribbons of color in “Being” slows down over time, but layered atmospheric effects maintain a shifting presence. (See “The Sound of Painting: Music in Modern Art,” by Karin von Maur, 1999; and James Leggio’s anthology, “Music and Modern Art,” 2002.)  

Perhaps the most prescient immediate precedent for Pelton’s paintings and career is Hilma af Klint, whose remarkable retrospective was held last fall at the Guggenheim Museum. Both women followed unconventional, spiritually-inflected artistic and personal paths. While Klint’s mystic formalism was virtually all-encompassing, complexly coded, and often on a grand scale, Pelton’s intimate inner mappings retain a reference to natural phenomena. They are also more conversant with an array of contemporaneous art currents. “Egyptomania”  that was facilitated by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and subsequently found its resonance in Art Deco, could also be seen in the elongation and iconography of  Pelton’s “Lotus for Lida (Egyptian Dawn)” (1930) and “Ahmi in Egypt” (1931). Both also feature highly stylized plant life seen throughout the oeuvre, as in the heraldic linear ferns of “Messengers” (1932).

Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932. Oil on canvas, 28 x 20 in. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum. Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation. (Courtesy: Whitney Museum of Art)

A few, including “Incarnation” (1929), feature floating frontal flowers in bloom, which brings us to Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelton’s closest artistic peer. (Their artist circles overlapped, but there is no indication they ever met.) The inevitable comparison is interesting as much for their divergent as for their shared painterly negotiations of nature and metaphysical aesthetic aims. O’Keeffe typically offers cropped, enlarged close-ups of her floral subjects that evoke female biological imagery—a widespread observation she resisted. Pelton’s sinuous botanicals function more as signposts in female-conscious cosmological scenarios wherein flower heads and petals may morph into rippling, lacy waves, clouds, and starbursts.

“Mother of Silence” (1933)— a depiction of a shining, Buddha-bodied female deity that many and repeatedly have recognized as uncannily similar to many portraits of Gertrude Stein—communicates a solidified feminist experience and worldview. From the 1940s, orb-ova abound in ostensibly non-objective compositions like “The Blest” (1941).

Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941. Oil on canvas, 37 1/2 × 28 1/4 in. Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon. (Photo: Martin Seck)

As in “Messengers,” a repeated throughout form is a vase-vessel, which further ties together the various female tangents.

It can be noted, finally, that, despite the apparent seriousness of Agnes Pelton’s spiritual, artistic, and intellectual endeavors, intermittent playful ruffled and scrolled contours can sometimes approach the frilly kitsch of Florine Stettheimer, although more carefully rendered and subdued. Indeed, this work is refreshingly free of dogmatic visual intonation or any stylistic allegiance, leavening it hidden idiosyncrasies and leaving us very free imaginative reign.