Monday, November 7, 2016

1881-1961: Agnes Pelton, American

Agnes Pelton is an historically important modernist painter who has been almost forgotten despite the wide range of her talent.

Agnes's major contribution to art was a type of abstraction that expresses the ideas of a philosophy called Transcendentalism. But she also created lovely desert landscapes, as well as studies of Native Americans.

Background: Agnes was born in Germany to American parents. The family lived in the Netherlands and Switzerland until her father's death in 1890 of a morphine overdose. Agnes was 9 years old. She moved with her mother to the family home in Brooklyn. Her mother had studied music in Germany and operated the Pelton School of Music in Brooklyn for 30 years.

Training: Agnes had a lot of training. She studied at the Pratt Institute from 1895 to 1900. She then continued her studies with an important painter, Arthur Wesley Dow, who later trained Georgia O'Keeffe. She went on to study life drawing in Italy.

Career: During the 1910s, Agnes had studios in Greenwich Village, the center of avant-garde art. She did symbolist figure compositions in pastoral settings that she called "Imaginative" paintings.

When Agnes was 40, in 1921, her mother died. Agnes relocated to a converted windmill in Long Island, embarking on a quest for peace and solitude. While supporting herself with portrait commissions, she turned inward and began to paint abstractions of natural phenomena. Her nature-based abstractions established a new direction for progressive painting in this country.

In 1932, at the age of 50, she moved in Cathedral City, a town of 100 population at the time, near Palm Springs, California. Here she produced two different types of work: she continued to create abstractions that expressed her spiritual understanding, but in order to make a living, she also painted desert scenes to sell to tourists.

Smoking Tree, 1935
Internet grab

Smoketree painting, no date
Internet grab

In 1938, her abstractions came to the attention of Raymond Jonson, one of the founders of the Transcendental Painting Group, an association of artists based in New Mexico that was committed to spiritual abstraction. Understanding her style and its meaning immediately, he invited her to act as the group's first president, even though she was the only one who didn't live in New Mexico. Pelton was also older than the others, and the younger artists looked to her as a role model.

Agnes's work was exhibited in New York in the 1910s and 1920s, and in the 1930s and 1940s she was honored by one-person exhibitions at all of California's major art museums. Unfortunately, interest in her work declined after World War II. She died a neglected figure at the age of 80. She had no family members to promote her legacy.

Private life: She was a quiet contemplative woman who believed deeply in the intrinsic poetry of natural phenomena. She was too occupied with spiritual matters to promote herself.

Romantic relationships are never mentioned in her biographies. It seems that she was entirely focused on her art and her spiritual explorations, and that she specifically sought out solitude for that reason. However, it appears that she was on good terms with her neighbors in Cathedral City. She also had correspondence with and visits from other artists and intellectuals, especially those who shared her spiritual quest.

My photos of Agnes' work:

Winter, 1933
Crocker / Jan's photo

Challenge, 1940
De Young / Jan's photo

Awakening (Memory of Father), 1943
New Mexico / Jan's photo

Internet examples:

Radiance, c. 1929
Internet grab

Spring Moon, 1942
Internet grab

Ascent (aka Liberation), 1946
Internet grab

Light Center, 1961
De Anza College, Euphrat Museum
Internet grab