Agnes Pelton was a metaphysical abstractionist painter, born to American parents in Germany. Pelton and her mother returned to New York in 1890 after the death of the artist’s father. Trained by her mother to play the piano at an early age, she began to study visual arts in her late teens. She earned a certificate from Pratt Institute. 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 as did Georgia O’Keefe or Agnes Martin.
In 1919, Pelton visited Taos, New Mexico and immediately became enamored of the topography and climate of the Southwest and befriended a group of painters in the Transcendental Painting Group. She was influenced by theosophy, a mystical religious doctrine that emphasized looking into the essence of things.
Pelton turned to abstraction in 1925 and 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. Pelton infused an organic light into the otherwise machine-influenced Art Deco styling of the 1920s and 1930s, creating easel paintings that are like talismans of spiritual wonderment.
In 1931, she settled in Cathedral City, California where she worked in virtual isolation in the California desert as she painted Surrealistic scenes of desert imagery. Some critics now say that her work is greater than that of the most famous desert painter, Georgia O’Keefe.
Her 1929 “Incarnation” evokes transformation as a giant rose hovers in a mysterious space surrounded by an emanation of glowing light. 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 representational. It shows a luminescent and hallucinatory flower vine, untethered from any support, without a definite light source. 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. Her work is in the permanent collections of museums in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and the Whitney Museum in New York.