When virtually unknown painter Agnes Pelton turned 50, she moved from an abandoned windmill on Long Island, New York to Cathedral City, California. To support herself, she painted competent desert landscapes of smoke trees and the local San Jacinto mountains and sold her works to tourists. The oracular, mystical abstractions she’d had been working on for the past two decades complemented this honouring of the environment as deeper manifestations of her spiritual beliefs and experiences. Like Wassily Kandinsky and her contemporary Lawren Harris, Agnes was a follower of the new religious movement Theosophy, and sought to clarify her explorations by making them visual.
Attracted to the desert for its spiritual colonies, sense of infinity and light, Agnes now doubled down on what had been a near-monastic existence developing a personal visual language in her Greenwich Village studio and then on Long Island. Arthur Wesley Dow, her painting teacher at Pratt, who would go on to teach Georgia O’Keeffe, planted in Agnes the belief that art is a record of the artist’s experience rather than an illustration of something material. Even though she’d been included in the 1913 Armory Show and a show at the Knoedler Gallery, Agnes retreated from the New York scene to focus on a quiet life of spiritual and creative practice.
When Agnes died in 1961 at the age of 79, her work fell further into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1986 that she was included in a large survey called, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985” at LACMA. It turned out that a lot of artists, including the superstars of the early 20th Century, were channelling Agnes’ psychic rules. “This is the first museum show to suggest not only how widespread the artistic dissatisfaction with all institutional forms of thinking has been, but how widespread it is now,” wrote Michael Benson for the New York Times. “The current artistic interest in the more intuitive, holistic aspects of Eastern thinking is one reflection of it.”
PS: “I feel somewhat like the keeper of a little lighthouse, the beam of which goes farther than I know, and illumines for others more than I can see.” (Agnes Pelton)
Esoterica: When Agnes did once sell a couple of her abstractions to collectors in Santa Barbara, they soon donated them to a museum that wasn’t really interested, who then put them in a fundraising rummage sale for $40. By the time a buyer returned from the bank with a cheque, the price of Agnes’ paintings had been reduced to $5. In 1995, the Palm Springs Art Museum (then called the Palm Springs Desert Museum) mounted the first one-person show of Agnes’ paintings. This month, a century after she began her spiritual and creative practice, the same museum will once again show Agnes in a one-person survey originally organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and then shown at the Whitney earlier this year. Like at the Whitney for much of last spring, “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” is on view, behind currently closed doors, at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Have you considered a Premium Artist Listing? With each letter, an artist is featured at the bottom of this page. The Premium Artist Listings are a means of connecting artist subscribers through their work. Proceeds from each listing contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.
“The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.” (Agnes Pelton)
Reply To J. Bruce Wilcox Cancel Reply
My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.
Although not a fan of this style of art, however I do admire this artist for pursuing her passions. I do love Georgia O’Keefe and identify with the spiritual side of her work
Yes…long time desert dweller here. Thanks for describing her orbit.
I love the concept of art [in any form] being a representation of the artist’s experience. That makes so much sense to me.
Thanks for writing about Agnes today. I was lucky enough to be in Palm Springs and saw her show in 1995. Just stunning to see it in person because photos do not do justice to her work.
jan, I too was there, and I agree…her work must be seen in person……..
Seems true of most works of art. I sense that there is a luminosity to her canvases that is only barely suggested in a photo.
What a great story! I know about Lawrence Harris, but had never heard of Agnes.
Thanks for that inspiring story! So many of us start with such spiritual ideals, then get ground down by the needs or demands of the “real” world. It is so very tough for most of us to stay the course. In that same 1986 LA exhibition was then unknown Hilma af Klint, who now has inspired me and countless more.
that lighthouse at the top of this post is in Marquette, Michigan.. I have painted that Lighthouse
How sad….artists are worth more dead than alive unless they pander to the whims of the current market and its minions. Although this story does affirm and validate the concept of working to please ones inner voices, that pleasure is not easily funded….hence the plethora of lovely generic art and artistic trinkets. I’m so glad Agnes continued to listen to her cosmic muse even while painting for the market….she left us with a legacy of her beautiful visions….Thank you Agnes, and Sara!
I recently acknowledged my spiritual beliefs on a video about my latest paintings and expected a deadpan reaction from the community of artists. Surprisingly and happily I received positive feedback from several people. Finally the spiritual and creative are aligned in my art and I realize there have been unspoken truths there for many decades.
This painting style and her philosophy opened psychic doors for me. Sheltering all these months has given me a new appreciation for the solitude needed by artists, and living in a desert landscape has opened an inner space that grows broader and deeper each day. This column is such an inspiration, Sara!
When the brush is about to touch a new canvas, or the knife is close to the raw woodblock- we decide what we are doing and who we are doing it for. Then that decision is in charge and the string runs out to the end. From then on it should be easy. Any direction works, if we can stay the course. So much is a mystery, and Van Gogh just made on stroke after another until he was done. Expression is useful, but I don’t think we know why. Thanks, Sara.
Another great story here. Thanks Sara
When I read Moby Dick with the illustrations by Rockwell Kent I was blown away by Kent’s exalted Illustrations which soared beyond this dimension. Agnes Pelton’s work, though more abstract, reminds me of Kent’s Moby Dick. Another in the same time period is Arthur Dove, in fact I’ve done a painting “Homage to Arthur Dove”. Thank you Sara!!!
Sarah, Thank you so much for introducing me to Agnes Pelton. Her work is filled with beauty and wonder. Just what I need to see. During this pandemic I returned to painting after working in other mediums and public art, for more than 30 years. I am relearning how to work with watercolor and find the process fascinating. May the holiday season bring light to all.
Tomorrow/s northern hemisphere Winter Solstice aligns with an 800 year cycle of Saturn / Jupiter conjunct in the heavens above. People are speculating on that distant Bethlehem star. Full disclosure- I am so not a christian. And frankly- I don’t believe in either jesus or santa.
Saturn is exiting Capricorn (think stern male parental unit demanding you get your act together) and reentering Aquarius for 3 years. It was in Aquarius briefly and then it retrograded back into Capricorn for a bit. So… who cares? 2020 has been brutal. I had to rebuild my sewing machine and I spent more on art supplies and to mount 4 exhibits- than I made. But I hung in 4 fabulous exhibits!
However- living on nothing and staying in my home / studio- working- is my ordinary reality. So less pandemic impact on me- than for many. World-wide the loss of life continues- so even with promising vaccines we’re not through this yet.
Some of us had to do our spiritual work just to remain embodied. This is my second pandemic. I lost hundreds of friends and family to AIDS during the 1980s/90s. Some people will refuse to believe this is happening- even as they are dying from it.
I’ve managed to achieve on odd balance. I’m old enough to be receiving a small amount back in SS. Yet my creative pursuit has always been to create (and sell) the work I’m creating. It’s my work. There isn’t a single reason that my work shouldn’t support me. To think otherwise is to be trapped in the last paradigm. You know- that sacrificial lamb paradigm that I don’t believe in… and that I exited while doing my own self-healing work.
But my abstract fiber art doesn’t reference any human landscape. It reflects decades of walking my unique path acting on my connection to Universal Source- no religion necessary. Everyone should- of course- acknowledge that early beliefs (that our parents / religion brainwashed us with) are nothing but a lens we perceive our reality through. They’re not real.
Real is what you connect to when you venture to stare INTO the abyss. What you discover on that journey into the SELF is what’s really real. And what pours out of you creatively because you’ve made the necessary inner connections- is what we artists bring to the NOW and the Future- when- after we’re dead we’ll finally be able to support ourselves with our actual work! Happy Holidaze…
We are fortunate today to be able to use social media in our pursuit to get known as an artist, plus the luck of having friends to see and join our vision. I have had lots of opportunities to expose my art.