A Review of Agnes Pelton: Desert Trancendentalist

By Kassandra Ibrahim, FCRH '22

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s new exhibition “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” explores the introspective work of Agnes Pelton. This exhibition, originally on view at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2019, allows viewers to step into the artist’s mental state. Each of Pelton’s paintings represents an alternative meditative or psychological experience with spirituality or a divine force.

Agnes Pelton, a 20th-century contemporary artist, represents various forms of consciousness with imaginary motifs, saturated pastel hues, and abstract shapes. Pelton was born in Germany but moved to the United States and was raised in Brooklyn, New York. She went on to study Chinese and Japanese landscape painting at the Pratt Institute before eventually moving onto the British Academy in Rome to practice conventional figure drawing of the Italian tradition. Her later abstractions of landscape and figural forms highlight her academic education. Pelton was also interested in theosophy and the connections between eastern and western religious traditions (Cascone). This artistic influence in spirituality is not individual to Pelton; she is among several other artists – primarily Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson – that make up the Transcendental Painting Group. This group sought out to represent the political, cultural, and religious discourse of their time through symbolic, aesthetic forms, similar to the abstract expressionist movement. Pelton’s paintings are often compared to the work of Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, who was featured at the Guggenheim in 2018; while they never met in person, Pelton and af Klint were both interested in the study and visual representation of theosophy (Goldstein). Museum Director Michael Zakian, author of Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, believed that Pelton’s work resembled “the art of her contemporary Georgia O’Keeffe, their similar approach to organic abstract motifs and pastel hues is evident throughout the Whitney’s exhibit. During her lifetime, her spiritual paintings were often misunderstood by buyers and even sold for as low as $5. Agnes Pelton was more preoccupied with the representations of her mystical visions, rather than wealth or fame (Goldstein).

Agnes Pelton, "Resurgence", 1938, Oil on canvas

While most of her work tends to be abstract and geometrically representational, such as Resurgence, Pelton also includes female figures within a series of paintings that places the women within “dreamlike landscapes.” One of those works, entitled Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, depicts a female figure in the foreground enveloped in a fantastical realm of illusionistic space composed of organic color block shapes that seem to overlap. This space comprises a botanical tree-like structure that Pelton seemed to have painted with wisping and liberating brushstrokes. The female figure’s arms are pressed against her chest, but her face is slightly turned to the viewer’s right to engage with a bird. Because this is a representation of a dream, the bird can be interpreted as a creation of the female’s imagination. In contrast to the woman’s darker garments, the soft pastels evoke a sense of blissfulness and innocent pleasure.

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Agnes Pelton, "Room Decoration in Purple and Gray", 1917, Oil on canvas
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Henry Fuseli, "The Nightmare", 1781, Oil on canvas

Whether this was her intention or not, Pelton seemed to have been following a tradition of artistic interest in nocturnal fascinations, similar to that of 19th century painter Henry Fuseli. In Fuseli’s The Nightmare, he also depicts a female figure within a dream state. With a contrasting dark color palette, he illustrates a sleeping woman laid across a plush furniture piece with a ghoulish monster on her chest. For the viewer, the Nightmare tends to provoke the horror-ish realm of the dreaming experience as the monster on her chest seems to insinuate the emotional “weight” of nightmares. Both painters approach lighting differently in their illusionistic interpretations. Compositionally, Pelton chooses to depict the background with a compilation of bright pastels in contrast with the female figure’s deep black garment. However, Fuseli chooses to illuminate the resting figure in contrast to her dark surroundings. This inverted accentuation of foreground over the background and vice versa communicates two opposite experiences of dreaming: the elevated blissful consciousness in Pelton and the horrifying nightmare in Fuseli. One could also unintentionally see these works as compliments to one another, representing the binary nature of dreams: terrifying nightmares and euphoric fantasies.

Even after the developments in psychology, artists are still exploring how to represent the realities that we experience in our minds, and Agnes Pelton explores this through her paintings. Fuseli’s works predate the invention of what we now know as the field of psychology, during a time where mental institutions and asylums were used, in part, as entertaining and edifying spectatorship for the public. On the other hand, Pelton was painting around the time where Sigmund Freud began his studies of dream analysis. One could argue that the developments of psychoanalysis could have indirectly influenced Pelton, while others may say that she is offering a female perspective within a previously patriarchal field. 

Both paintings also offer insights into the particularly female experience of dreaming. Pelton’s dreamer seems to engage with her environment; she is standing in an upright position with her head turned focused on the bird and not the viewer. Fuseli’s dreamer is shown in a theatrical swoon with her body spread across the furniture and her arms outstretched; her bodily positioning is simply vulnerable. A century later, Pelton’s female form appears autonomous and confident compared to Fuseli’s defenseless dreamer. Fuseli also accentuates the anatomy of his female figure, as she is dressed in a tight nightgown. Based on Pelton’s compositional choices  – the soft pastel background contrasted with the figure in a loose-fitting gown – she communicates a fanciful realm of euphoria. 

Agnes Pelton, "The Fountains", 1926, Oil on canvas

Another noteworthy work that was abstract yet picturesque was her The Fountains. This symmetrical stylized representation of a water fountain communicates a sense of tranquility. Pelton uses only organic shapes to mimic the liquid movement within a water feature. Her use of delicate, warm, and pale hues elicit a calming effect for the viewer. Overall, each of her paintings explore a different state of consciousness or connection with the realm of spirituality through expressionist representations of abstract forms. 

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