“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Oil on canvas. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation; All photographs courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Here’s one thing you can say about “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist”: localism has its benefits. A retrospective of a reclusive and little-known painter has arrived in Manhattan, having originated in Phoenix and traveled to Santa Fe, and with Palm Springs set to be its final destination. Though Pelton (1881–1961) was born in Germany and educated in New York, she spent the last thirty years of her life holed up in southern California—Cathedral City, to be exact. No splashy international credentials here, thank you very much. What about auction house hoopla, ideological grandstanding, and post-modernist theorizing? Though anything can be drafted into the service of irksome trends, Pelton’s work, on the whole, proves resistant. Should we be so gauche, then, to consider matters of art? On those terms, “Desert Transcendentalist” succeeds nicely. What possessed the Whitney—an institution not known for placing a premium on aesthetic worth—to host such an understated, serious, and rewarding venture? Curator Barbara Haskell and senior curatorial assistant Sarah Humphreville must have done considerable strong-arming to convince their corporate bosses that Pelton was worth the real estate. Or maybe they mentioned Hilma af Klint.

You remember af Klint: the Swedish painter fêted by the Guggenheim a little over a year ago, and whose oeuvre was quite the smash. Af Klint’s diagrammatic pictographs found an appreciative audience that would otherwise have had little truck with abstraction. The backstory helped: af Klint (1862–1944) was a visionary who communed with the spirit world; she was a woman who, chronologically speaking, beat pioneering abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian—that is to say, the guys—at their own game; and she had a temperament inimical to the market-place. That the paintings are merely okay hasn’t fazed the cultish following that has amassed in af Klint’s wake. What will these same folks make of Pelton? She, too, immersed herself in the supernatural. Madame Blavatsky was a touchstone, as were astrology, numerology, faith healing, and Agni Yoga, a discipline in which true believers learn that (as per the official literature) “the way to and from other planets is no more difficult than is the passage between the physical and astral bodies.” Those of us leery about the state of our bodies, astral or otherwise, might be forgiven for thinking twice about trekking to the Whitney.

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Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941. Oil on canvas, 37 1/2 × 28 1/4 in. (95.3 × 71.8 cm). Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon. Photograph by Martin Seck

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Which would be a shame because Pelton is a find—a painter whose work reveals af Klint as a piker and confirms Georgia O’Keeffe to be a drab hand. The latter comparison is merited not only because Pelton and O’Keeffe took inspiration from the landscape of the American West—Pelton spent a formative season in New Mexico at the behest of the arts patron Mable Dodge—but also because they shared a distinctly homespun mysticism, as well as significant commonalities of form. Scholars conjecture that Pelton’s bent toward New Age nostrums can be traced to a highly publicized family scandal: her grandmother Elizabeth Tilton (already married and with children) was famously exposed as having had an affair with the firebrand evangelist Henry Ward Beecher. Having felt “overshadowed” and “cramped” by this legacy, and suffering from poor health, Pelton sought solace outside of conventional religious and medical practice. This led, interestingly enough, to some noteworthy connections among the culturati—not only Dodge, but also Emma Curtis Hopkins, a practitioner of “alternative feminist theology,” and Alice Brisbane Thursby. Hopkins served as Pelton’s therapist; Thursby as patron and promoter. The latter’s connections to the Parisian avant-garde did much to cement Pelton’s reputation within New York circles. She was no starry-eyed outsider.

large_804_Orbits_copy.jpgAgnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 30 in. (92.1 × 76.2 cm). Oakland Museum of California; gift of Concours d’Antiques, the Art Guild of the Oakland Museum of California

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As I noted in my review of the af Klint exhibition, philosophical loopiness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand when it comes to art. It has, in fact, occasioned a fair share of significant work, and Pelton is a sterling case in point. Admittedly, “Desert Transcendentalist” does stutter toward the beginning, with pictures like Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), with its fairy tale portent and Futurist mannerisms, and Intimation (1933) and Barna Dilae (1935), saccharine and sticky portraits of imagined “ascended masters.” Even so, these images are characterized by patiently calibrated surfaces and lustrous accumulations of oil paint. Pelton’s brush flutters with a becoming modesty, and her palette is striking in its luminosity. This is an art of bottomless, crystalline color, and spaces so nuanced in their transitions as to occasion double-takes. As a symbolist, Pelton was better off forgoing direct representation; suggestion and distillation were her strengths. In the finest paintings, constellations, flora, and sandstone mesas are subsumed within gentle arabesques, sloping rhythms, and compositional buoyancy. The Whitney’s Sea Change (1931), with its off-center accumulation of bulbous forms nestled within a crepuscular light, is Hudson River School sensationalism melded with Surrealist whimsy. Sounds awful, but it is, in truth, a magnificent picture, and not a little sexy to boot.

Pelton employed Modernist means when adumbrating form, but the chromatic and spatial resonance of the pictures—their clarity, depth, and jewel-like sonorities—are pure Renaissance fortitude. The ascending motes of light in Orbits (1934) and the keening tonality enveloping Challenge (1940) owe less to Arthur Dove—another painter with whom Pelton shares artistic turf—than, say, Raphael. A hyperbolic comparison, sure, but name another twentieth-century artist who created anything close to the infinite yellow of Prelude (1943) or the milky veils of unnameable color that filter through The Blest (1941). Pelton’s more tangible shapes can be cartoony and do edge upon kitsch, but they carry with them a wit and resilience that is appealing and welcome. Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at the Phoenix Art Museum and the organizer of “Desert Transcendentalist,” has wisely chosen not to include Pelton’s traditional landscape paintings. Though accomplished, these pictures-done-for-profit are woefully bland when contrasted with even the wobbliest of Pelton’s spiritualist reveries. As for the non-wobbly reveries —of which there are a baker’s dozen or two— they are stunners. Coming into initial contact with them, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been all your life. Kudos to Haskell and Humphreville for bringing this exhibition to New York, and especially Vicario, for knowing a good painter when he sees one.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeard in the May 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

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