Agnes Pelton was primarily a metaphysical abstractionist painter, who produced both abstract and representational paintings. She transformed figurative paintings of flowers and desert into Surreal scenes of wonderment. She infused an organic light into her easel paintings, which went against the machine-influenced Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s.
Born to American parents in Germany, Pelton and her mother returned to New York in 1890 after the death of her father. She was trained by her mother to play the piano at an early age and began to study visual arts in her late teens. She was a student at Pratt Institute in the 1890s where she became captivated by the Japanese concept of Notan beauty, the harmony achieved by careful arrangement of light and dark spaces. Further studies introduced her to modern landscape painting and Japanese prints.
Pelton was one of a handful of women invited to participate in the landmark 1913 New York Armory show, which introduced European Modernism to America. The under-appreciated Pelton, who would be working in the Southwest, would always be considered a regional artist at that time because she did not have strong ties to New York City as did Georgia O’Keefe or Agnes Martin.
Pelton began her artistic career as a realist artist, painting portraits to make money. However, her work was deeply influenced by a visit to Taos, New Mexico in 1919, and she began moving away from figurative art. She loved the topography and climate of the Southwest and befriended a group of painters in the Transcendental Painting Group. She studied theosophy, a mystical doctrine that emphasized looking into the essence of things.
Pelton turned to abstraction in 1925, painting abstract depictions of flowers and desert landscapes. She wanted her paintings to launch viewers into a higher plane. Her synesthetic conflation of smell and sight was stimulated by the writings of Kandinsky. She also compared color arrangements to musical harmonies.
In 1932, she settled in Cathedral City, California where she worked in virtual isolation in the California desert painting Surrealistic scenes of desert imagery. The desert light became the central subject of her work. “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.” Some critics now say that her work is greater than that of the most famous American desert painter, Georgia O’Keefe.
Her 1929 “Incarnation” evokes transformation as a giant disembodied red rose hovers in a mysterious bright-yellow space surrounded by an emanation of glowing light. Curtains on either side have opened, showing a vision. At the bottom of the painting are blue icebergs. The flower is not simply a rose but a veritable sun. Pelton’s enigmatic and beautiful “The Voice” is a 1930 canvas that shows an anemone-like white eruption coming from a glowing red-orange core set against a midnight-blue field. Her 1945 oil painting, “Passion Flower,” is listed by her as an abstraction even though it is figurative. It shows a luminescent and hallucinatory flower vine, untethered from any support and without a definite light source. In her 1952 “Idyll” she paints the San Bernardino Mountains in a representational manner reminiscent of her earlier work, except that two unrealistic radiant arcs of light – orange and green – create an impression of a brilliant desert day. Her 1965 “Blue Planet” is an acrylic composition of circular colors in shades of blue and dulled ochre.
The Agnes Pelton Society was founded in 2013 to promote her legacy. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” is the first survey of her work in more than two decades.
Her paintings are in the permanent collections of museums in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.