I had this experience most recently at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Sam and I went to see the show Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist (on view in Santa Fe through January 5, 2020. See the last paragraph below for more info).
Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) worked a vein of spiritual abstraction informed by her interests in mysticism, numerology and yoga, and by the larger current of abstract painting of her time. As I looked at her paintings, I wondered immediately, Why is Agnes Pelton not as well-known and well-regarded as Georgia O'Keeffe? Pelton's paintings also demonstrate a fascination with the space and sky of the open desert, with the effects of light--of glow--and a conviction that the desert sky is a locus of mystical meaning. One wall label says that Pelton's paintings in the late 1920s began to be "completely untethered from reality and move toward a surreal embodiment of light, space, and vibration that borders on science fiction."
Sam and I noticed that almost every painting contained some kind of horizon line, situating it in a kind of landscape. And almost every painting followed the composition of an icon, with a strong central image serving as a focal point. For these reasons alone, I suppose, I am predisposed to love her work!
These are a few of my favorite paintings from the exhibit.
|Agnes Pelton, Ecstasy, oil on canvas, 1928|
A flower bursts open / in rush of ecstasy to meet the Day. . . the life force gathered, / and swift and free / it opened, to the light.
|Agnes Pelton, Voyaging, oil on canvas, 1931|
|Agnes Pelton, Mother of Silence, oil on canvas, 1933|
|Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, oil on canvas, 1938|
It was sobering to read, on the last text panel in the exhibit, that when Pelton died in 1961, one of the paintings she had given to the Santa Barbara Gallery was put in a White Elephant Sale and marked down to $15. Pelton's work did not fit neatly into existing categories at the time, and so it was deemed disposable.
In the 1980s Pelton's work began to be studied, catalogued, and exhibited, and it seems that she is finally taking her rightful place as an important modernist and abstract painter. For me, it was en-courage-ing to see an artist so committed to her own original vision, whether or not it was in fashion or marketable or even categorizable.
If you want to know more, visit the Santa Fe museum's website here. The exhibit was organized by the Phoenix Museum of Art and a 30-second video shows their installation. A 38-minute video lecture about Agnes Pelton by art historian Erika Doss is on YouTube here. The exhibit will travel to the Whitney Museum in New York City in March 2020 and to the Palm Springs Art Museum in August 2020. The catalog of the show is available from the New Mexico Museum of Art here, the Phoenix museum here, and on Amazon here.