Agnes Pelton Joins the Underappreciated Female Artists Finally Getting Their Due With a Major New Show at the Whitney – Vogue

The artist Agnes Pelton was born in 1881, but her paintingsenigmatic abstractions based on her New Age-y spiritual inquiriesmake perfect sense in our zodiac, meditation, and yoga-obsessed age. Its her moment, says Barbara Haskell, the Whitney curator overseeing the museums installation of Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, the first survey of the artists work in more than two decades.

When Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist opens in New York this Friday, it will be something of a posthumous homecoming for Pelton, who spent much of her childhood in Brooklyn, a time marked by trauma. Her father died of a morphine overdose when she was nine. And shortly before her birth, her maternal grandfather Theodore Tilton, a high-profile abolitionist newspaperman, unsuccessfully sued his pastor Henry Ward Beecher for criminal intimacy with Tiltons wifea national scandal that cast a shadow over Peltons mothers life.

Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1938. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 25 in. (76.5 63.5 cm). Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.

The artist, understandably skeptical of Christianity, sought succor in esoteric spiritual movements, first in the teachings of New Thought and Theosophy, later in the study of Agni Yoga. In her early adulthood, Pelton painted nostalgic scenes of Grecian maidens in sylvan glades, two of which appeared in the seminal 1913 Armory show. But following her mothers death in 1921 and a move to live in an abandoned windmill on Long Island, the artist leaned into abstraction, mining her transcendental explorations to produce paintings like The Fountain, a 1926 canvas depicting plumes of water vaporizing before a glowing orb. At 50 she permanently decamped to Cathedral City, California, a dusty town outside Palm Springs, and her work took on the expansive feel of the desert. Her later paintings are metaphysical landscapes, notes Phoenix Art Museum curator Gilbert Vicario, airy, luminous fantasias populated with cryptic theosophical symbols: lotus flowers, wings, stars. (PAM organized the traveling survey.) Equal parts ethereal and hokey, they seem to describe another plane of existence, one the artist accessed in meditative trance states, and faithfully translated into paint.

For Pelton, these paintings were vehicles for her own insight into spiritual enlightenment, says Haskell, so draining to produce that she worked on them intermittently and kept them for herself, making money by hocking more straightforward desertscapes to tourists. (Always do this work first, she wrote of the abstractions, others only when these do not call you.) Though she showed her paintings occasionally, her retreat from the art world and increasingly inward-facing practice meant that by her 1961 death, Pelton, childless and unmarried, had fallen into obscurity. Her abstractions were dispersed: one later resurfaced at a Santa Monica thrift store; another was sold at a Santa Barbara museum deaccession sale for a few bucks. Haskell encountered Peltons work in the 90s, and even then, convincing the Whitney to acquire its first painting took years.

As the art world rediscovers a glut of fantastic 20th-century female artists unfairly ignored by history books, Pelton often comes up alongside fellow desert painter Georgia OKeeffe (they shared an early teacher) and fellow Theosophist Hilma af Klint. But whats really remarkable is her utterly idiosyncratic vision. Pelton is sui generis, marvels Haskell. She really was such an independent artist.

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Agnes Pelton Joins the Underappreciated Female Artists Finally Getting Their Due With a Major New Show at the Whitney - Vogue

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