Georgia O’Keeffe may be the best known of the modern artists who also happened to be a women. Agnes Pelton, who had a similar education and traveled in the same circles, has remained on the periphery of art history. Thanks to mounting pressure and scholarship about artists who have been overlooked due to gender or race, Pelton is receiving new attention.
A spectacular exhibition, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, is on view at the Phoenix Art Museum through September 8. It travels to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the Whitney Museum in New York and the Palm Springs Art Museum, where the first big reappraisal of her work was staged in 1995. In fact, Pelton lived in Cathedral City for most of her adult life.
During the research for my 2004 biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, Full Bloom, I came across Pelton’s art many times and was struck by the many parallels. Pelton lived from 1881- 1961. O’Keeffe from 1887 to 1986. Pelton was born in Germany of American parents but raised in Brooklyn after the age of seven. O’Keeffe was an outspoken Midwesterner.
Both studied in New York under the massively influential teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, who emphasized the seductive power of decorative motifs, especially as used in traditional Japanese art. He encouraged the curving lines of art nouveau and warm, even pastel colors in modern painting.
Pelton was considered enough of a rising star to be included in the historic 1913 Armory show at the invitation of Walt Kuhn.
O’Keeffe did not see that show but her own career was propelled by her love affair and then marriage to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the most zealous promoter of American modern art.
Pelton also made art out of her experiences in the south west, invited by patron Mabel Dodge Luhan to Taos in 1919. O’Keeffe didn’t make that pilgrimmage until 1929. By then, she was a superstar, with her flower paintings commanding huge sums.
Pelton, however, was on a spiritual quest. O’Keeffe remained more tethered to earthly concerns.
This exhibition focuses on Pelton’s abstract paintings that began to emerge in the 1920s, initially influenced by Kandinsky’s ideas about the synesthesia, the vibrational power of music and color.
In 1928, Pelton came to Pasadena to do deeper studies with the Theosophy Society. That is likely when she first visited Palm Springs. In 1932, she moved to Cathedral City where views of Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio inspired paintings of the desert landscape melded with her urge to find higher meaning through abstraction. Sand Storm (1932) layers the mists of the storms clouds that swept the desert with an emerging rainbow.
She was pursuing deeper spiritual experiences through Agni Yoga, a branch of Theosophy. She developed friendships with the Transcendental Modernists of New Mexico, an informal coterie of artists led by Raymond Jonson who sought alternatives to the strictly formal view of mid-century abstract painting. Though she had not returned to New Mexico since 1919, her work was shown with theirs at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Orbits (1934) shows the stars traveling paths of light at night above the horizon of Mount San Jacinto.
Through the 1940s, she studied the writings of Krishnamurti and continued to integrate her spiritual beliefs with her painting but also pursued more realistic landscapes of the desert, which were easier to sell. Both were inspired by her long walks through the desert, then still largely undeveloped.
Pelton’s physical health failed in the 1950s and she died of liver cancer in 1961. The show includes her last painting Light Center (1960-61), which attempts to capture the transition from life to afterlife. After her death, her work was dispersed recklessly by distant heirs and her legacy all but lost until the work of art historians in the late 1980s. Her work was included in LACMA’s groundbreaking The Spiritual in Art exhibition of 1986.
Pelton was dedicated to channeling presence, intuition and energy into visible form. This is a path leading directly into bad kitsch for many an artist but Pelton’s paintings always hover in the realm of ethereal radiance. You can scarcely help being pulled into their power, as though they operated as visual mantras.
Curator Gilbert Vicario has organized the show in Phoenix while two of the catalog essays were written by former directors of the Palm Springs Art Museum, Michael Zakian and Elizbeth Armstrong, where her reputation began to be restored. This is no exercise in compare and contrast between O’Keeffe and Pelton but an opportunity to expand our awareness of artists being welcomed into a more inclusive history.