The resort city of Palm Springs and its surrounding conurbations boast stylish modernist houses with gleaming swimming pools; carefully arranged plantings of cycads improbably protected from excessive heat by semi-permanent sunshades; and touristic enticements such as a giant, flashy statue of Marilyn Monroe. The trappings of this artificial oasis could hardly contrast more with the serene simplicity of landscapes by Agnes Pelton (1881-1961). Nevertheless, just outside the civilization remain swaths of undeveloped land seemingly timeless and unchanged, readily imagined as the desert of yore that inspired Pelton’s paintings on display in a pair of concurrent shows at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Seeing these paintings near their original context seems particularly meaningful given that both exhibitions focus primarily on Pelton’s work in the desert. “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, traveled to the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Whitney before arriving here at its final destination, a homecoming of sorts as the artist worked seven miles away in Cathedral City.
Like many other woman artists from the past receiving wide recognition only now, Pelton achieved a degree of acclaim but little financial success during her lifetime. Though her work was included in significant shows, her name dwindled to obscurity in later life and after her death. It was not until 1995 when “Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature,” a retrospective at this museum, then called the Palm Springs Desert Museum, placed the long-deceased painter on the proverbial map. The first Pelton survey since that exhibition 26 years ago, “Desert Transcendentalist” is perhaps even timelier, with a public more receptive to her work in light of the recent resurgence of popular interest in spiritualism and its relationship to art.
Although she never subscribed to a single movement or religion, Pelton was fascinated by supernaturality from an early age, and studied New Thought, Buddhism, Hinduism, Theosophy, Agni Yoga, astrology, and numerology. Her familiarity with various spiritual teachings is evident in her idiosyncratic lexicon of shapes and symbols evoking wide-ranging emotions and psychic states. Comprising 35 paintings, “Desert Transcendentalist” begins with the emergence of her abstraction in the 1920s, and is organized largely chronologically. A 1917 figure painting, Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, followed by her first abstract painting, The Ray Serene (1925), suggest how her work evolved from figuration to a Kandinsky-esque expressionism before she began creating the metaphysical abstractions for which she is best known.
Having spent most of her life in New York, Pelton’s first brush with the desert came when she visited Taos in 1919; desolate landscapes crept into her abstractions in the mid-1920s, presaging her later captivation. She likely first visited the Coachella Valley during 1928-29, when she lived in Pasadena. In 1932, she moved to Cathedral City and never left. The desert became her muse, and its spirit appears in full force throughout her work. Sometimes, barren landscapes serve as backdrops; other times, expanses of land, topographical features, or celestial elements embody an active presence. Evoking an underwater setting as well as a twilit desert, Sea Change (1931), which possibly betokened the new beginning represented by her imminent relocation, depicts an agglomeration of what might be waves or cumulous clouds coalescing into a rising green entity that gazes into a expanse of azure sky or sea.
Pelton approached her art as a devotional practice and envisioned her paintings as portals to spiritual understanding; a meditation room in her home helped her to come up with new ideas. Staring at her abstract paintings elicits a dreamy feeling whereby one’s mind wanders freely through the transcendental scenes they evoke. One of the highlights of visiting this exhibition is being able to apprehend firsthand the nuance of her touch and color relationships, which are lost in reproduction. Born of accumulations of sensitively dabbed brushstrokes, her thin glazes transmit a ruminative mood with quiet intensity. In The Blest (1941), a painting inspired by an experience she had of “a feeling of blessedness all day,” subtle distinctions among the high-key hues of five ethereal figures can barely be seen in an image, and even in person, they are best viewed from an intermediate distance: stand too closely or too far away, and the figures merge, nearly to disappear.
In addition to their experiential qualities, her paintings frequently contain elements of a diagrammatic nature. The lines attached to stars in Orbits (1934), for example, seem to illustrate motion. Some of her motifs were influenced by a 1901 book by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation, positing particular colors and forms as physical manifestations of emotions and states of mind; but most of her symbols—such as flowers, wings, or palm fronds—harbor significance of a more universally relatable nature. Charcoal lines linger permanently on her sparse final abstraction, Light Center (1960-61), left unfinished at her death. This is displayed beside one of her starkest compositions, Departure (1952), where two circles are linked like a Venn diagram, perhaps representing the sun and moon changing places over a wasteland glowing dully at sunset.
The Palm Springs version of “Desert Transcendentalist” is ten paintings short of its previous iterations, but this is made up for by a companion show, “Agnes Pelton Landscapes,” that was not included with prior editions of the larger survey. The 24 paintings and drawings here show how she gleaned inspiration from real world observation.
Two paintings done during an extended trip to visit relatives in Hawaii are darker than her desert paintings, emitting a sanguineous glow not seen in her other work. One of these, Tall Ginger (1923-24), is said to be her first symmetrical composition, which inspired later vertical formats. It’s easy to see a resemblance between this flower painting and an abstracter one in the other show, Lotus for Lida (Egyptian Dawn) (1930). The other Hawaiian painting, Firepit of Kilauea Volcano, Island of Hawaii (1924), prefigures her abiding interest in fire; and the lava can be compared to the desert floor that she later so often painted with stylistic bareness.
The rest of the pieces in “Agnes Pelton Landscapes” were from her Cathedral City years. Owing to financial problems, she turned to painting desert landscapes en plein air to sell to tourists. Accomplishing these paintings was physically taxing and took her away from her spiritual abstractions, yet quotes from her personal letters show that she did delight in this work, and in the time it allowed her to spend outdoors: she referred to the paintings as “my deserts” and frequently extolled the beauty of her surroundings. They offer intriguing glimpses into her life; for example, one piece depicts her mountain cabin. The immediacy and looseness of several studies on paper shows a rarely seen side of her process; and the quickness of her hand across the outdoor canvases stands in marked contrast to the slow, laborious paint application in her abstractions. Yet even these relatively straightforward scenes have elements of uncanniness. In the left corner of Untitled (Palo Verde Tree) (n.d.), two boulders appear to double as mountains and sky, forming a secondary landscape-within-a-landscape.
Correspondences between the terrain, vegetation, and light in Pelton’s representational paintings and metaphysical abstractions elucidate how her desert environment informed her repertoire of backgrounds and motifs. For instance, the peaks in November Morning (n.d.) bear a strong similarity to those in Idyll (1952). The abstractions may have been her “real” work; but the straightforward landscapes are no less important for bringing to life the sights that inspired them, anchoring her esoteric symbolism to lived experience. Passing vestigial reminders of Pelton’s deserts on the way out of Palm Springs, one can readily imagine the dreamy visionary world of her abstractions projected upon the land.
“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” and “Agnes Pelton Landscapes,” through September 5, 2021 at Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262. A catalog for “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” edited by curator Gilbert Vicario, was produced by The Phoenix Art Museum.