As I strolled through the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W Palace Ave.,
476-5072) one recent afternoon, taking in the work of Agnes Pelton, I sheepishly admitted to Merry Scully, the head of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary works, that while I was pretty sure I knew Pelton's name, I was not familiar with her work. A lesser-known if not nearly lost painter, Pelton is what we might call a modernist dark horse, and Scully very kindly let me off the hook, saying that not only did the work toil in relative obscurity before her death in 1961—even if she was sorta-kinda getting some recognition in her desert community of Cathedral City, California—most people today only sorta-kinda know the name.
"In the mainstream art world, she had two strikes against her," Scully says, "she was a female and on the West Coast—the people who stayed in the limelight and had more sustainable careers were often men and part of a more dominant East Coast modernism."
To be fair, Pelton did show at 1913's famous Armory Show, and was a member of the Transcendental Painting Group alongside other recently appreciated painters like Emil Bisttram, but still—most people defer to bigger figures in early American modernism, like O'Keeffe; It's been nearly 25 years since an institution has exhibited Pelton's paintings in the way current traveling show Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist is doing with her last solo outing being in Palm Springs, California, in 1995.
It's a straight-up shame. As I perused works, starting from an early-career figurative piece of a woman and a bird and working my way throughout the 40 some-odd others hung in semi-chronological order and growing more abstract by the moment, it hit me that my life had tragically been missing something so wonderful. But then, even the show's original curator, Gilbert Vicario of the Phoenix Museum of Art, admitted to artnet News earlier this year that he hadn't been familiar with Pelton prior to his working there in 2015, describing his knowledge gap as "a little embarrassing."
Amen, brother, but, like, thanks for getting it together to show everybody.
Because the longer I looked, the more I discovered. Without straying into abject adulation or some weird form of hero worship, the show started to feel more important, like a close call with a happy ending—and when I returned for the show's official opening last Friday evening, it hit me all over again.
Pelton was born to American parents in 1881 Germany. It's not clear why the family moved there, but Scully says that it had something to do with her grandmother having an affair. By the early 1900s, she had returned to the States, attended the Pratt Institute in New York City and studied with, among others, Arthur Wesley Dow (who also taught O'Keeffe, by the way, who must have felt like some sort of phantom to Pelton, always one step ahead) in Massachusetts. Pelton even visited Taos at the behest of Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1919, and by 1931, Pelton moved to the deserts of California, where she doubled down on abstraction.
Encounters with Agni Yoga masters and the Russian mystic and philosopher Helena Blavatsky (founder of a pantheistic philosophical-religious movement called theosophy) and her husband appear to have opened her eyes to the metaphysical and spiritual realms full-on decades before such things were commonplace. As Pelton herself evolved, the figurative and representational works of her early career went out the window and were replaced with a merging of hard-edged landmasses and soft-lined celestial bodies, deconstructing her earlier works and reconstructing their ideas and essences into newly formed ideas.
"I'm amazed at the trajectory of things that show up subtly in her work early on that become major parts of her compositional strategy later," Scully says.
From this point, Pelton's shading techniques and pigment selections became spiritual movements unto themselves. Take 1933's "Fires in Space," a sparse series of explosions in the sky. From a distance, they look simple, orange and yellow bursts like firecrackers popping on a field of darkness. But at the base of the explosions are tiny, carefully appointed dots and lines of blues and reds anchoring the fires to the black. Pelton included tons of details like this in her work. In 1934's "Orbits," for example, she portrays the movements of stars over a mountain with dotted lines representing their trajectory, 35 years before the moon landing and its lead-up spawned an American space obsession.
Also, as Scully points out, there is something feminine about Pelton's later work, though never in overt ways; vessels and whispy feathers and what might be construed as eggs; overlapping circles perhaps expressing new life, or perhaps expressing loneliness. The desert, after all, can become a sea of solitude, even for artists who are ahead of their time; maybe even especially so.
"I think she was a searcher," Scully tells SFR. "I think she was a searcher for meaning."
Desert Transcendentalist runs through January 5. It next hits the Whitney in New York and rounds out its journey at the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2020, the very same place Pelton's last major exhibit showed.
An earlier version of this story stated that Pelton's grandfather had an affair; it was actually her grandmother.