PRINT March 2020


Agnes Pelton, Challenge, 1940, oil on canvas, 36 × 32". Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.

AGNES PELTON was fifty years old when she left New York for the village of Cathedral City, six miles southeast of Palm Springs in the California desert. By 1932, a conspiracy of sun, sand, and settler-colonial ideology had made the state a mecca for visionaries and seekers, attracted by landscapes seemingly unspoiled by human intervention, temporalities seemingly unburdened by the past. In Pelton’s 1941 painting Future, obscure shadows part to reveal two stone towers. Suggestive of those that marked the town’s entrance, they float just above the horizon and flank a distant lavender hill. Overhead, four little portals arranged in a cruciform pattern perforate the bleached sky. Pelton wrote that the work represented a “kind of Pilgrim’s Progress. Through darkness + oppression, across a stony desert and through a symbolic arch is seen a mountain of vision, above which open by degrees, windows of illumination.”

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935, oil on canvas, 25 1⁄4 × 23 1⁄2".

The first solo show devoted to Pelton in about a quarter century, “Desert Transcendentalist” opened last year at the Phoenix Art Museum (where it was organized by chief curator Gilbert Vicario) and on March 13 travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (where it will be overseen by curator Barbara Haskell). Its arrival in Manhattan has been prepared by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s record-busting 2018–19 retrospective of Swedish painter and mystic Hilma af Klint, to whom Pelton will likely be compared. Both artists put their academic training to work in accomplished yet conventional landscapes, reserving abstraction to convey their vision of a reality beyond the material world. They also drew on overlapping occult sources and shared a decentered view of their authorial agency, seeing themselves as conduits for spiritual forces rather than as autonomous creators. Their contemporary reception has coincided with a surge of institutional interest in underknown women artists and with a broader cultural mainstreaming of astrology, witchcraft, and alternative spirituality (a phenomenon not overlooked at the Guggenheim gift shop, which stocked Ouija boards, tarot cards, and other esoterica during the run of the af Klint show). That said, Pelton’s organic language of evolutionary processes differs from the diagrammatic tendency of much of af Klint’s work, and each artist deserves to be considered on her own terms (one shudders at the prospect of cringey epithets like “the Coachella Hilma af Klint”). The comparison is nonetheless instructive. While af Klint and Pelton were steeped in the heady arcana of their historical moment, their contemporary reception is very much a symptom of our own, speaking to an exhaustion with the art-historical canon and a hunger for meaning outside the domain of empirical data and official institutions.

Agnes Pelton, Mount of Flame, 1932, oil on canvas, 24 × 20". University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque.

Born in 1881 to American parents in Stuttgart, Germany, Pelton moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was seven. Timorous, shy, and plagued by neurasthenic episodes and mysterious ailments, she grew up in the long shadow of the nineteenth century’s most notorious sex scandal. In 1872, free-love advocate, spiritualist, and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull—running on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Frederick Douglass—revealed that renowned pastor and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher was “living in concubinage” with Agnes’s grandmother Elizabeth Tilton, who was married to a prominent newspaper editor and abolitionist. The ensuing adultery trial rocked progressive Brooklyn and ruined the Tilton family. Agnes’s mother, Florence, was sent away to Germany, where she married William Pelton, the expatriate failson of a Louisiana plantation owner. He died when Agnes was nine, and Florence gave music lessons and took in boarders to make ends meet. “From the time of puberty,” Pelton recalled, “I was much inclined to melancholy and tears, which was probably aggravated by being the only child in a household of deeply religious and perhaps unnecessarily serious people.”

Agnes Pelton, Seeds of Date, 1935, oil on canvas, 41 × 35". Collection of Palm Springs Art Museum.

Pelton began her formal study of art in 1895 at the Pratt Institute. Among her instructors was painter and educator Arthur Wesley Dow, who espoused the Japanese value of notan (the harmonious contrast of dark and light) and encouraged intuitive expression over mimetic verisimilitude. In the 1910s, his students Georgia O’Keeffe and Max Weber would radicalize his ideas in adventurous abstractions, while Pelton’s output from this time—crepuscular idylls of willowy maidens adrift in grottoes and wooded landscapes—clung to the late-Symbolist manner of Louis Michel Eilshemius, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Arthur B. Davies. These “Imaginative Paintings,” as the artist called them, were congenial to the tentative modernism then emerging in New York. They were exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show, among other venues, and attracted patrons including Greenwich Village salon-nière Mabel Dodge Luhan, who would expose Pelton to the desert when she invited her to stay at her estate in Taos, New Mexico, in 1919.

Agnes Pelton, Idyll, 1952, oil on canvas, 20 × 19". JLW Collection.

A few months prior to this trip, Pelton wrote in her journal that her “Imaginative Paintings” were beginning to feel “insincere,” “not real.” She wanted her art to reflect “perfect consciousness” and “Divine Reality.” As art historian Erika Doss points out in her contribution to the “Desert Transcendentalist” catalogue, these words “were lifted from the writing of spiritual leader Helena Blavatsky.” Famed cofounder of the ancestral New Age faith theosophy, Blavatsky held that the world’s many belief systems were based on an atavistic religion organized around a single, metaphysical Absolute. Synthesizing elements of Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and other traditions, theosophy aimed to elevate and enlighten humanity by retrieving this forgotten universal knowledge. Like af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and other moderns, Pelton was drawn to the creed’s idealist teleology of human perfectibility, finding in it an exotic alternative to scientism, materialism, and mainstream Christianity.

Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1938, oil on canvas, 30 1⁄8 × 25".

When her mother died in 1921, Pelton, now forty, moved to the abandoned Hayground Windmill near Water Mill, Long Island. There she painted The Ray Serene, 1925, a gestural, Kandinsky-esque churn of psychedelic vapors and whiplash curves, designating it “My First Abstraction” on the back of the canvas. Two works from the following year cathect on the form of a luminous sphere, enveloped in a tornado of gesture in Being and embubbled by nacreous globules in The Fountains. In the latter work, the multiplying rondures and the yellow solar disk overhead suggest Blavatsky’s successor Annie Besant’s description of the cosmos “as a mighty solar system, the sun representing the LOGOS and, coming outwards, orb after orb, each orb representing a plane of the universe.” Cowritten with self-styled clairvoyant Charles Webster Leadbeater, Besant’s 1901 treatise Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation provided Pelton with a symbology of colors and shapes believed to possess transhistorical meanings. As scholar Nancy Strow Sheley noted in her dissertation on Pelton, her 1928 painting Ecstasy features the symbol of the “curving hook,” identified by Besant and Leadbeater with selfishness and greed. The artist explains in an accompanying poem that the cluster of yellow tendrils represents a blooming flower “harassed” by the “ugly hook of darkness,” the scythe-like form lurking near the composition’s bottom edge.

Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932, oil on canvas, 28 × 20".

The same year she painted Ecstasy, Pelton traveled to California for eight months and became immersed in a South Pasadena spiritualist colony called the Glass Hive. She sketched lotuses, symbols of self-renunciation, at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. The flower would eventually mature into the golden inflorescence presiding over Ahmi in Egypt, 1931, a delirious nocturne replete with a white swan, strange conical mountains, and swirling celestial activity.

Agnes Pelton, Light Center, 1947–48, oil on canvas, 36 × 25".

On her return to New York, Pelton’s style, which had gurgled with Heraclitean flux and painterly incident, became more serene, hard-edge, and resolved. Symmetry, horizon lines, and landscape elements returned to her compositions, which began to suggest illusionistic depths and expanses. In Star Gazer, 1929, a pale-green chalice shelters a purple ovate form that evokes a schematic standing figure or budding flower. High above in the evening sky, a tiny six-pointed star represents Venus, a planet of antipatriarchal and anticlerical significance in theosophical cosmology. According to Blavatsky, “Venus, the sister planet of our Earth, was sacrificed to the ambition of our little globe to show the latter the ‘chosen’ planet of the Lord. She became the scapegoat, the Azaziel of the starry dome, for the sins of the Earth, or rather for those of a certain class in the human family—the clergy—who slandered the bright orb” by associating it with satanism.

Pelton labored to reconstruct her interior visions on canvas, realizing numinous tissues and lapidary volumes through successive glazes over months or even years.

Agnes Pelton, Winter, 1933, oil on canvas, 30 × 28". Crocker Art Museum.

The allure of the arcane was central to the af Klint cult that flourished across Instagram feeds last year, but the Swedish artist’s recourse to extrinsic systems of meaning posed a problem for some critics and historians. “Taking af Klint seriously as an artist, in my view, actually requires us to take some critical distance from the mysticism that might have enabled her to make such innovative work,” Briony Fer wrote in the Guggenheim catalogue. “To focus only on the occult symbolic meanings of her work leads to an interpretive dead end.” Like af Klint’s abstractions—which Guggenheim visitors could experience on “psychic tours” where they “practice[d] receiving spirit messages through select paintings”—Pelton’s court para-aesthetic modes of reading that might open up meaning for some and close it down for others. In an effort to explore a wide range of possible responses to the artist’s work, Sheley showed the painting Challenge, 1940, to an expert in occult imagery, who decrypted the picture sign by sign, identifying the star flower as an indication of “good character,” the milky, pod-like form as a symbol of “maternity unrealized,” and each inky stipple as a cipher for “a decision influenced by men in [Pelton’s] life.” Such literal iconographic correspondences are, of course, anathema to modernism, with its emphases on subjective expression, self-criticism, and hermeneutic indeterminacy. For Pelton, the final significance of her art ultimately lay neither in the sensuous matter of the paintings themselves nor in any hermetic doctrine encapsulated within them, but in telegraphing between the phenomenal world and an empyreal nonsite at the edges of representation and consciousness. “I feel somewhat like the keeper of a little lighthouse,” Pelton wrote, “the beam of which goes farther than I know, and illumines for others more than I can see.”

Agnes Pelton, Ahmi in Egypt, 1931, oil on canvas, 61 3⁄8 × 36 1⁄8".

Pelton labored to reconstruct her interior visions on canvas, realizing numinous tissues and lapidary volumes through successive glazes over months or even years. She eschewed improvisation and seriality. With the exception of her last work, Light Center, a luminous egg form veiled in a purple penumbra (painted first in 1947–48, then again in 1960–61), she never repeated a composition. She did, however, draw on a consistent body of images that included orbs, urns, mountains, and, perhaps most important, fire.

Agnes Pelton, The Ray Serene, 1925, oil on canvas, 24 1⁄2 × 26 1⁄4".

In 1930, Pelton befriended composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar (né Daniel Chennevière), who became her spiritual guide and sympathetic critic. Steeped in Bergsonian vitalism and Jungian analysis as well as theosophy, Rudhyar was a principal theorist of what he called “humanistic astrology,” which strove to reconcile star divination’s deterministic conception of human agency with depth psychology. It was likely through him that Pelton, who had been fascinated by the eruption of the volcano Kı¯lauea when visiting Hawaii in 1924, became a devotee of Agni Yoga, a neo-theosophical discipline devoted to the cosmic, purifying energy of fire. In two works from 1930, she imagines its essence as incandescent heat, manifested as an acanthus of flames in The Voice and as a shaft of Promethean radiance in the formidably minimal White Fire. Fires in Space, 1938, one of her most visceral compositions, scatters twelve conflagrations across a field of unstructured darkness, flickers of illumination in the abyss.

If Pelton’s fantasias at times seem as much in dialogue with Disney as with Kandinsky, it’s not disparaging her to say so, any more than it’s disparaging Kandinsky or af Klint to note their engagements with occultism.

When Pelton’s landlord sold the Hayground Windmill in 1932, she headed for California. Two years earlier, writes Doss, Time magazine was already reporting “a flourishing of cults, of religious novelties, and new fashions in faiths” in the state. Initially planning on a brief trip, Pelton stayed for the rest of her life, seeking painterly forms through modes of heightened consciousness like trance, prayer, and meditation. In Messengers, 1932, her first Cathedral City abstraction, a blue moon rises over a desert horizon and progenerates a shimmering urn crowned by stylized palms, evoking the thatched structures of the area’s indigenous Cahuilla people. Like the glassy vessel of Star Gazer, this central motif appears to levitate from the bottom of the canvas—a transcendent motion Rudhyar described as “upward rush” or “upward aspiration.”

Agnes Pelton, The Fountains, 1926, oil on canvas, 36 × 31 1⁄2". Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon.

Pelton’s asceticism, spiritual intensity, and isolation from mainstream centers of cultural production might tempt one to romanticize her as a hermit. In fact, she made lasting friendships with her neighbors, hosted studio visits and art exhibitions, and continued to show her work in New York and other US cities. Through Rudhyar, she began a correspondence in 1933 with Raymond Jonson, cofounder of the Transcendental Painting Group, a circle of southwestern artists committed to “carry[ing] painting beyond the appearance of the physical world.” The same year, she lent fourteen paintings to an exhibition Jonson arranged at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Also included was the work of O’Keeffe, to whom Pelton was often and unsurprisingly compared. Pelton, likely aware that their overlapping social networks, shared inspiration in nature, and midlife relocations to the western desert might invite conflation, teased out the differences between them in her journal: “[Her] source is not the [same] source as AP [Agnes Pelton] . . . they are not seen primarily inside, in the realm of Ether (as I call ‘it’). . . . The joy [of O’Keeffe’s work] is her own subjective reaction, the joy of spreading its rebound over the canvas for her external eye.”

Hayground Windmill, Water Mill, New York, October 1921.

Whereas O’Keeffe’s biomorphic forms were overdetermined by the sexualized framing (one that the artist unequivocally rejected) imposed on them by her partner Alfred Stieglitz, Pelton’s work seems less available to carnal interpretations. She never married; her sexuality remains a matter of speculation, and her squeamishness on the subject reflected the Victorian attitudes with which she was raised. The physicality and “violent thrust” (per her description) of Seeds of Date, 1935, one in a series of commercial painting she made for a fruit farm in California, caused her some retroactive distress. Pelton resolved to avoid sexual imagery in her abstractions. “When a form appears to have a phallic resemblance,” she wrote, “use the force it represents without the form.” (For the most part, her sublimations were successful, with the exception of the conspicuously erectile Ascent [aka Liberation], 1946.)

Agnes Pelton, Ecstasy, 1928, oil on canvas, 24 × 19". Des Moines ArtCenter’s Louise Noun Collection of Art by Women.

Even in Cathedral City, one could not live on divine inspiration alone. When the death of an uncle, who for years had helped her out with regular checks, left her in precarious financial straits, Pelton began painting plein air desert scenes for the tourist trade. Letters to her friends speak of chronic illness, money problems, and creative frustrations, particularly the strain of balancing her commercial production with her abstractions. In 1932, she painted two mountain pictures, San Gorgonio in the Spring, a picturesque view of flowering cacti and a distant snowcapped massif, and Mount of Flame, a hieratic peak scaled by “little tongues of flame,” its summit erupting in a spray of white mist: a symbol of the transformation of “heat” into “Light.” To return to such abstractions after her landscapes, she once wrote, “was like painting with a moth’s wing and with music instead of paint.”

Agnes Pelton, Star Gazer, 1929, oil on canvas, 30 × 16". Collection of Susan and Whitney Ganz.

Was the boundary between picturing the material world and her “inner vision” as hard as Pelton imagined? Not so in Winter, 1933, a bizarre, almost clumsy sublation of abstraction and figure painting, with its poshlost doves foregrounding an astronomical pink corolla blossoming from the sea. The work epitomizes the alluring wrongness of Pelton’s paintings, which look like modern art but also like design, advertising, and pop culture. There is something distinctly Moderne in her line, her bulbous yet tensile contours, while her curlicues and fronds and wings are reminiscent of interwar textiles and wallpaper. The glowing ovoid form in Light Center could be a sconce on a bathroom wall; the swan in Ahmi in Egypt could have been cut out of a magazine. Her polychrome hazes suggest neon on a rainy night. To a contemporary eye, works like Idyll, 1952—a desert landscape brightly detourned by two translucent parabolic forms that refuse to quite make sense either as objects in pictorial space or as gestural marks—might register as virtuosic exemplars of good bad painting, but the elements of badness don’t collapse into kitsch, at least not entirely, nor do they make her pictures any less compelling as explorations of inner worlds and esoteric visions.

Agnes Pelton, date unknown. Photo: Alice Boughton. Carolyn Tilton Cunningham Family Collection/Nyna Dolby.

If Pelton’s fantasias at times seem as much in dialogue with Disney as with Kandinsky, it’s not disparaging her to say so, any more than it’s disparaging Kandinsky or af Klint to note their engagements with occultism. Theosophy is one of modernism’s limit concepts; so is kitsch. (And these two limits might not themselves be cleanly distinct. With its baroque eclecticism and spiritualist trappings, theosophy, one might say, was already kitsch.) Pelton’s paintings are gorgeously weird explorations of these limits—perhaps none more gorgeous, weird, even destructive than Day, 1935, painted after her exposure to the geometric work of Jonson and the Transcendental Painting Group. A vertical rectangle, scandalously Euclidean and infilled with a cool blue fade, establishes itself on a misty starlit mountain, canceling its illusionism. “Although this is the closest she would come to true geometric abstraction,” writes the late Michael Zakian, who curated Pelton’s first retrospective in 1995, “the central rectangle is not a pure, autonomous form.” A flow of pearly, Peltonian fluid bursts from its side, concluding in plumes of filmy opalescence. The artist called the shape the “fountain with the open door.” Its negative metaphysics is an invitation inside, to the realm of Ether. 

“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, March 13–June 28. 

Chloe Wyma is an associate editor at Artforum.