PRINT December 1995

Christopher Knight


It’s tempting to clap for “HIDDEN TREASURES REVEALED,” the display of booty looted during World War II and long sequestered at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. The show forced complex questions concerning the civil conduct of post–cold war international life, while also resurrecting from the ashes Degas’ drop-dead 1875 painting, Place de la Concorde, a thrilling urban image of imminent emptiness and loss. Still, resist temptation. Leave behind yet another legendary palace and textbook icon, and embrace instead the nearly forgotten paintings of AGNES PELTON, from “Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature,” at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. (Yes, that Palm Springs.) I first saw her work at the University of New Mexico’s Jonson Gallery a dozen years ago, and I’ve been hungry for more ever since. Pelton (1881–1961) was one of the few women to have exhibited in the Armory Show, a Symbolist painter who eventually transformed the European figurative genre into an all-American kind of abstraction. (Eat your heart out, Georgia O’Keeffe.) A lesbian who lived alone in the tiny California desert town of Cathedral City, she developed, at age 44, a numinous style filled with dreamy, galactic, fecund forms, using thin glazes of gemstone color that practically glow in the dark. These loopy, utterly eccentric works happily coexisted with desert landscapes she painted for the tourist trade—pictures that miraculously manage to redeem the schlock genre. The Pelton retrospective (her first) is currently on a national tour of small museums and university galleries that, to borrow from Peter Schjeldahl, is one step away from the witness-protection program. Welcome back anyhow, Agnes.


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “P.L.A.N.”—the acronym stands for “Photography Los Angeles Now”—would have been run-of-the-mill compost, except for its grandly touted intention to survey recent “photographic activity” (as opposed to plain ol’ photography) produced in the image capital of the universe. The old news was that photographically based art now encompasses painting, sculpture, and installation work. The new news is that institutions with old-fashioned departments born from a pristine idea of the photographic medium are looking nervously over their shoulders. What will become of them when our lens–based culture finally gives way to a digitally based one? P.L.A.N. didn’t have a C.L.U.E.

Christopher Knight is art critic for the Los Angeles Times.