The modern ideal of painting as a process through which to dis cover a meaningful identity was important to countless American artists in the first half of the 20th Century.
Among them, a special place must be reserved for certain women. They faced the added complication of sexism, while working in an expanding artistic milieu that already had trouble getting serious respect from the larger society.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is by far the most famous of these painters, but long-forgotten figures such as Henrietta Shore (1880-1963) and Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) are also significant. Born in the 1880s, all three developed into maturity in the years that saw the women’s suffrage movement grow and, in 1920, finally prevail.
More is known about O’Keeffe than one might wish, given the rather limited scope of her actual achievement. And Shore is slowly becoming the center of a dedicated gaggle of fans. Now Pelton, 34 years after she died in virtual obscurity in the Palm Springs suburb of Cathedral City, is at long last the object of much-warranted attention.
“Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature” is the first retrospective exhibition of this remarkable artist’s career, as well as the first substantive show of her work since the 1950s. Organized by Michael Zakian, associate curator of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the show surveys 51 paintings made between 1913, when she was among a handful of women chosen by American painter Walt Kuhn to participate in New York’s legendary Armory Show, and 1961, when she left more than one canvas unfinished at her death.
There is also a single drawing: “Standing Female Nude” (c. 1911-14), a gracefully fluid sketch in red and white chalk highlighted with pastel, and the earliest work in the show.
Together with its information-laden catalogue, which represents a yeoman’s job of archival research, “Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature” ranks as perhaps the most important exhibition organized at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in its 19-year history. After the show’s presentation there (through April 30), it will travel to a variety of small museums around the country before finishing its tour back in California--at Pepperdine University in Malibu in May, 1996, and at the Oakland Museum the following August.
Chronologically installed, the show is divided into two parts. First are two dozen paintings Pelton made in New York, where she lived from age 7, and on Long Island, where she moved into a small, isolated, seaside windmill after her mother’s death in 1920. Next are two dozen paintings executed in California, where she chose to live starting in 1932, when forced by her landlord to vacate the windmill.
Each half of the exhibition is further subdivided in two. First are paintings that speak with the personal, exploratory voice of an avant-garde sensibility; these include a number of wildly off-center abstractions. And second are portraits and, especially, landscapes. Painted to appeal to a conservative American market that had no truck with abstract art, they are nonetheless wonderfully accomplished.
Pelton had been born into a comfortable family, but when her fortunes changed later in life she did have to earn a living. Abstraction was her passion, realism her bread and butter. She gave all her considerable talents to both.
Pelton’s interest in the avant-garde is in evidence early on. Pictures such as “Vine Wood” (1913), one of two small canvases she contributed to the Armory Show, which introduced European Modernism in a big way to America, are pretty old-fashioned by the standards of that show. However, the loosely painted figure of a maiden dressed in a Grecian peplos and serenely gliding through a magically atmospheric forest (she’s playfully taunted by a little monkey who clings to a vine) shows where the artist’s introspectively inclined allegiance lay.
Pelton’s budding sensibility might even be discerned in her drawing, “Standing Female Nude.” The figure’s tall, willowy, faceless, fully frontal pose flickers like a Symbolist apparition.
Her commitment to abstraction, however, did not develop until after 1925. Pelton had been born in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents, who also moved to Holland and Switzerland before returning to New York. Her father died of a morphine overdose when she was 10, and her mother opened a music school. Agnes helped out and, like many proper young ladies of her station, she took art classes that eventually led to study abroad.
Her dreamy paintings of the 1910s may be imbued with expressive longing, but they also feel tamped down and withdrawn. A lesbian, Pelton isn’t known to have formed any long-term romantic attachments and, for the most part, she lived at home until early middle age.
With her mother’s passing, Agnes fitfully began to strike out on her own. And the sense of spiritual quest that marked her earlier work began to accelerate.
Pelton’s first abstract painting wasn’t made until she was 44. Titled “The Ray Serene” (1925), its thinly painted arcs of light and shadow recall much-earlier precedents, such as Kandinsky’s Expressionism and Delaunay’s Orphism, as filtered through a more plain-spoken American sensibility, such as that of Stanton Macdonald-Wright.
Although non-figurative, this deftly executed picture still retains a distinct sense of worldly space, with landscape-like shapes below and ethereal rays of light beaming down from a radiant, unseen source above. In this, it loosely recalls the maiden in a glowing forest that was the earlier “Vine Wood,” although now transformed into the beginnings of what would become a fully Symbolist form of abstraction.
“Vine Wood” and “The Ray Serene” each present, in very different ways, a womb-like environment for a mysterious, radiant emanation. The theme would become central to her art.
T he most beautiful painting in the show is “The Voice” (1930), in which a pale, yellow, flame-like shape, reminiscent of a delicate sea anemone, rises up from a pool of blue that hovers over a cloud of red, glowing like an atomic ember. An amazing pictorial representation of vocal sound, it speaks a silent visual language that is both bizarre and mesmerizing.
It is also extremely theatrical. At the top of the canvas, a small black arc causes the blue background to visually curve and recede, as if it was the backdrop for a stage on which the centralized image is performing its silent vocal magic. Suggestions of theatrical curtains opening to reveal concealed visions are recurrent in Pelton’s easel paintings, such as “Incarnation” (1929), “Illumination” and “Fire Sounds” (both 1930), and “Nurture” (1940).
Pelton’s abstractions can get pretty nutty. Suddenly you find yourself staring at them with mouth agape, both at the exquisitely handled painting technique and at the celestially cosmic visions of flowers, buds, vases, caves and stars, hovering in perfect stillness.
In “Sand Storm” (1932), perhaps the artist’s most eccentric invention, the brown, cloudy, swirling abstractions representing desert sand seem to part before your eyes, revealing a glowing shape--part star, part flower--floating in space above a rainbow’s curve.
Pelton’s paintings are certainly idiosyncratic. But they are also emblematic of a decidedly American sensibility, which eventually arrived on a mass-culture scale. Think of Walt Disney’s animated 1940 movie, “Fantasia,” and you’ll have some idea how.
Pelton’s motif of suggestive curtains opening to reveal abstract spectacles casts her pictures as revelations of mystical spirit, which lurk behind outer appearances. Her technique of painting in thin, smooth, translucent oil layers of color, which yields the illusion of light emanating from deep within the canvas, enhances the sense of a mystery disclosed.
These paintings are abstract icons of a spiritually inflected faith. (Pelton was loosely allied with the Transcendental Painting Group in New Mexico.) Still--and in some ways even more remarkably--that vision also reverberates through her realist desert landscapes, painted for the market.
The fullness of these landscape vistas couldn’t be more different from the run-of-the-mill tourist views more typical of the genre. In Pelton’s painted desert, the Earth seems to be a vessel meant to carry light, within which sentient life can grow and blossom and realize its exquisite self.
That description might apply to Pelton, too, in the years around her move from the East to California. She had visited Los Angeles for nearly a year in 1928-29, but she moved to the tiny town of Cathedral City for good in 1932. It was a period of extraordinary personal turmoil for the 50-year-old painter, emotionally and financially. The discordant sense of upheaval was surely compounded by the social trauma of the Great Depression.
And yet, this was also the period of her strongest and most compelling paintings. Looking at the gem-like abstractions now at the Palm Springs museum, you can’t escape a sense that they were painted against the chaos of her life.
The calmly centered “flowering star” glimpsed through the violence of a sand storm feels intensely autobiographical. Finally, an image that had been described in the 1913 Symbolist vision, “Vine Wood,” was transformed into lived experience: Painting itself became a fecund womb that gave birth to Agnes Pelton.*
* “Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature” Palm Springs Desert Museum, 101 Museum Drive. Through April 30. Closed Mondays. (619) 325-7186.