Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 30, 2019
Gilbert Vicario, ed. Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist Exh. cat. Phoenix and Munich: Phoenix Art Museum in association with Hirmer Publishers, 2019. 248 pp.; 132 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9783777431925)
Steele Gallery, Phoenix Art Museum, March 9–September 8, 2019; New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, October 5, 2019–January 5, 2020; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 13–June 21, 2020; Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CA, August 1–November 29, 2020
Transcendent Transcendentalists
North Wing, American Galleries, Phoenix Art Museum, March 30–December 15, 2019

“The Art-form which is form-of-power does not say anything, it Does something to you,” wrote modernist composer, astrologer, and painter Dane Rudhyar nearly a decade before he joined the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Art as Release of Power, Hamsa, 1929). Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist is the latest ambitious example of a growing fascination with esoterically inspired art that attempted to compel an active, dynamic spirituality into our mundane world: to “do something,” rather than merely illustrate appearances. The exhibition is expertly curated by Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, and is emblematic of the developing wave of interest in the topic of esotericism and visual art. The exhibition successfully brings a visionary Pelton out of the margins and reintegrates her, with the help of the compact exhibition Transcendent Transcendentalists (shown elsewhere in the Phoenix museum), into the larger metaphysical and modern art movements of her day in both Europe and the Americas. With the recent success of the Guggenheim’s 2018–19 Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, attention to spiritual artworks of esoterically inspired artists is burgeoning into a full-blown artistic and scholarly renaissance, balancing overdetermined secular modernism with a view to reenchantment.

The relationship of abstract visual art to esoteric spirituality is now an important twenty-first-century preoccupation in academic scholarship, demonstrated in the rise of international studies of esotericism represented by university scholarly groups such as the Association for the Study of Esotericism, founded in 2002, and the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, founded in 2005. New international research in theosophy, modernism, and mysticism, carried out by emerging scholars in the Enchanted Modernities network, resulted in recent conferences and exhibitions such as Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape, and the American West, at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University (2014), and a more recent iteration of this interest was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson when it mounted Blessed Be: Mysticism, Spirituality, and the Occult in Contemporary Art in 2018. Not since the 1986 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890–1985 has there been such an expanding interest in recapturing early experiments in spiritual modernism and exploring their legacy today.

Transcendent Transcendentalists, curated by Arizona State University art history professor Betsy Fahlman, features works from the TPG as a complementary and contextual exhibition alongside the Pelton show. The TPG’s chief aim was to use color and abstract form, sometimes undulating and biomorphic, often geometricized, to move beyond the literal appearance of the physical world. To them, finding underlying and emerging patterns revealed deeper spiritual meanings and rhythmic vibrations capable of interacting with human mental and intuitional planes. These ideas were inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). TPG artists were committed to making the invisible visible, a preoccupation that would reemerge in 1960s psychedelic art. Active from 1938 to 1941, the short-lived group explored a wide range of styles in their quest to experiment with color and form, in contradistinction to other more naturalistic Taos Society artists. Abstraction was to them a spiritual practice, intuitively expressing a higher plane, even if they consciously used symbolic and recognizable landscape features and even Native American pictographic imagery in their work. This exhibition features works by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson, and reveals the group’s use of a variety of artistic methods, from expressive and naturalistic representational painting to abstract and often symmetrical geometric forms in pencil, airbrushed watercolor, and oil. Jonson’s Zodiac Suite, for example, is a collaboration with Rudhyar, whom Jonson met through Pelton because of their shared interests in theosophical ideas, including astrology. Falling short of delving into the occult religious impulses that inspired the work, the exhibition nonetheless reveals the formal similarities and differences between Bisttram, Jonson, and Pelton in their quest to produce, not simply illustrate, a direct experience of spiritual power. 

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist introduces us to Pelton by way of an excellent illustrated timeline of her life with supporting materials, such as a display of esoteric classics familiar to her and her friends, including books by Rudhyar, H. P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, Rudolf Steiner, and Manly P. Hall. The exhibition includes paintings sometimes connected to poems by Pelton, which subtly demonstrate the importance of the synthesis of the arts and a symbolic synesthesia, thought to create the higher vibrations necessary for ushering in the new age that inspired esoterically minded artists. Though Pelton was also adept and successful at painting and marketing more realistic landscape images, as she was with traditional portraiture, the exhibit convincingly represents her abstractions as her most passionate and personal art form. The incredible color palette and luminosity of these works is as present today as they were recognized in a review in the Sacramento Union in 1944: “So marvelously does she use color that some of these paintings seem to glow with a light coming from within the pigment.”

Pelton, born to American parents in Stuttgart, Germany, grew up in the United States and attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She studied with important American modernist pedagogue Arthur Wesley Dow in Ipswich, Massachusetts, spent a year studying life drawing at the British Academy of Arts in Rome, and exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913. A visit to Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1919 in New Mexico exposed her to the desert Southwest. Luhan hosted a popular New York salon, helped organize the Armory Show, and created many of the desert Southwest connections that kindled the later TPG. Pelton’s interest in theosophy was deepened during a 1928–29 stay in Pasadena, California, where she studied with a group of theosophical seekers known as the Glass Hive surrounding writer Will Levington Comfort. By the early 1930s Pelton was compelled to make a new home in her “Shambhala” of Cathedral City, California. Through her meditation practice and from new physical vistas, metaphysical landscape paintings inspired by esoteric spirituality began to emerge. Luminous, rhythmic, and frequently symbolic, these images are poetic meditations on often-fiery nature spirits emanating from the desert environment. They could be likened to the thought-forms explored by theosophical leader Besant and clairvoyant Leadbeater in 1901.

Pelton met like-minded artists Bisttram and Jonson through her association with Agni Yoga follower Rudhyar. He introduced her to the writings of Agni Yoga founders Nicholas and Helena Roerich, whose works on theosophy and practical mysticism inspired her. The current exhibition includes Intimation (1933) and Barna Dilae (1935), possible spiritual portraits of the Roerichs. Nicholas Roerich was a key influence on the artists in TPG, through his Master Institute of United Arts, founded in New York in 1920, and later Arsuna, a Roerich-inspired art school in Santa Fe active from 1937 to 1942. Pelton’s attraction to Agni Yoga, also known as “Living Ethics,” was due to its development of potential human planes of functioning beyond the merely material, which she experienced in both meditation and in active contemplation of the desert surrounding her. The “light coming from within the pigment” captures the energy fields that Agni Yoga teaches are part of the vital, living cosmos without and the subjective and intuitive human within. Pelton’s paintings work as a personal form of creative transcendence but also work to produce a spiritual energy that, like Rudhyar (and Kandinsky) suggested, “does something to you” rather than merely representing already existing ideas or things. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully produced and illustrated catalog that is a singular addition to Pelton scholarship. Curator Vicario edited the volume and contributed the introductory essay. Surrealist art historian Susan L. Aberth of Bard College provided an excellent contextual essay, “Women, Modern Art, and the Esoteric: Agnes Pelton in Context.” Other specialized essays are “Agnes in the Desert,” by recent Palm Springs Museum Director and art historian Elizabeth Armstrong; “Agnes Pelton’s Spiritual Modernism,” by Americanist Erika Doss of the University of Notre Dame; and “Agnes Pelton: Transcendental Symbolist,” by Michael Zakian, director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, who in 1995 curated the first Agnes Pelton retrospective.

Paul Eli Ivey
Professor, School of Art, University of Arizona