Agnes Pelton
1881–1961


Audio

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Idyll, 1950

    Idyll, 1950

    0:00

    Carrie Moyer: Idyll is a really fascinating work that does something that not very many of the paintings in the exhibition do, which is that it combines her very obvious, beautifully-rendered landscape painting with these kind of funny abstracted forms.

    Narrator: Carrie Moyer.

    Carrie Moyer: I believe those two forms represent or are meant to represent very dear friends and patrons of Pelton's. So they're actually a kind of radiant light form that represents a human being.

    Idyll is a late painting, so it's from 1952. And her output decreased in the last decade of her life. There's something daring about being old and just being like, "Alright, I can do whatever I want now. What's this look like?"

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Light Center, 1947–48

    Light Center, 1947–48

    0:00

    Narrator: In the 1940s, Pelton often painted circles and ovals—symbols of infinity, with no beginning and no end.

    Suzanne Hudson: Often they're situated within fields of light that appear as almost diaphanous veils where you see the interpenetration of different layers.

    Narrator: Art historian Suzanne Hudson.

    Suzanne Hudson: And I think in these, you see her exploring not only the layering of oil and it's transparency and in some cases even translucency, but also registering the effect of light. And, at this point in her career, she's been living already for over a decade in Cathedral City and it's in the desert nestled against mountains, but at night it is an incredibly clear panorama.

    I imagine her in that space and being infinitely interested in the passage of light, and the way that the passage of light registers time, both through the day but also through the night.

    And I think there's a registration here of almost a sense of flickering. You get the sense of light coming through from behind or from some deep interior space within the picture plane. And I think perhaps it's not an especially far stretch to imagine this as becoming deeply symbolic for her, with ideas of illumination as forms of spiritual transcendence and light imaging—something that is both ever present but mercurial, and always in the process of being transformed.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    The Blest, 1941

    The Blest, 1941

    0:00

    Carrie Moyer: One of the hardest things to do as a painter is to make something look like it's glowing.

    Narrator: Carrie Moyer describes Pelton’s painting, The Blest

    Carrie Moyer: There's something so seductive about how this is done, despite its seeming gentleness. There's this whole dark foreground that suggests a kind of awakening or something that one might—it's almost like seeing a UFO in the desert or something. It's this incident that happens that then disappears. And she's captured that moment.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Sea Change, 1931

    Sea Change, 1931

    0:00

    Suzanne Hudson: It's clearly imaging some kind of wave form. But the longer I looked at it, I realized that it actually is both kind of aqueous and celestial. It could be the movement of water, but it could also be the movement of sky.

    Narrator: Like many of her peers, Pelton was interested in the writing of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. For Jung, water and passage through water served as metaphors for the collective unconscious and rebirth. Suzanne Hudson is a professor of art history at the University of Southern California.

    Suzanne Hudson: I see her within a trajectory of American artists who in some ways it's a kind of pantheism or kind of appropriation from so many different religious traditions and sources. It becomes almost a kind of homemade faith or a kind of spirituality by her own design. And I think, in that, you could put her together with people like Agnes Martin or many other artists who were interested in so many different world religions and practices. Not as a form of hierarchy, or not as a form of conventional structured religion, but as ways of trying to understand themselves in their relation to something far beyond.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Mother of Silence, 1933

    Mother of Silence, 1933

    0:00

    Mary Weatherford: This painting is called Mother of Silence. Agnes Pelton painted it after she moved to the California desert, which is silent.

    Narrator: Artist Mary Weatherford.

    Mary Weatherford: Agnes referred to this in her diaries, in short, as M.O.S.. So this painting hung in her studio for many, many years, and when Agnes had a problem with a painting or with anything, she would ask this painting the Mother of Silence, what to do.

    Agnes's early life was marked by silence. The family, her grandfather was involved, and her grandmother, in a terrible scandal that was splashed across The New York Times. A famous preacher of the day had an affair with her grandmother. And so, to save face, Agnes's grandfather, Tilton, had sued the guy for stealing away the affections of his wife, and he sued him for $100,000 in Brooklyn court. It ended in a hung jury, and so Agnes's grandfather moved away to Europe and spent the end of his days writing romance novels, having been an important person that would talk to even Abraham Lincoln. The family really stayed silent about this. So, then strangely enough, later Agnes paints this painting called Mother of Silence.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Voyaging, 1931

    Voyaging, 1931

    0:00

    Narrator: By the time she made Voyaging and other works in this show, Pelton’s circumstances were quite modest—and she supported herself financially by painting landscape scenes for tourists. But until the death of an uncle who had supported her, she had lived a life of relative privilege.

    Mary Weatherford: Agnes did a lot of traveling. She traveled to Hawaii, Syria, Beirut, all around the Mediterranean.

    Narrator: Artist Mary Weatherford.

    Mary Weatherford: So I think she was familiar with shipboard. That means she was familiar with looking out at the horizon and seeing it as a curve. And so what she's done is painted in the foreground, a sea foam green stylized version of waves, and then moving outwards, an ultramarine far horizon.

    On the right hand side is a bell. Agnes Pelton, in the early part of the century, taught at her mother's music school in Brooklyn. She was interested in the connection between color and sound. This painting is a painting of shipboard sounds. One of the sounds is a bell, which reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson that Agnes Pelton was probably familiar with, and the line from that poem that looks like it's in this painting says, "Then space began to toll / As all the heavens were a bell, / And being but an ear. . ."

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Orbits, 1934

    Orbits, 1934

    0:00

    Carrie Moyer: One of the things I really like about it is the ambiguity of the space in the painting. And it's something I'm interested in my own work, too.

    Narrator: Artist Carrie Moyer discusses this painting, Orbits.

    Carrie Moyer: And so we focus on the central form, which are these seemingly traces of the orbits of these stars. But actually, we're looking at this kind of layered atmosphere, where there's perhaps a mountain top at the top. And then at the bottom, there's another mountain top. Or this stuff is sitting on top of a cloud. And this is an opening into the cloud. So we have all these different kinds of relationships to space that are presented in this extremely soft, dreamy way.

    The word “silence” is something that she uses a lot, either in titles or in some of the quotes I've read by her. And it feels like these become these kind of iconic images in which our mind might become silenced—not in a negative way—or quieted. So thinking about these stars as this kind of activity that's captured inside of the frame. Nothing goes outside of the frame: that's another quality of religious art from all different kinds of belief systems. So we are contained inside the cranium of the orbiting stars moving inside this mountain top or whatever that is.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Star Gazer, 1929

    Star Gazer, 1929

    0:00

    Barbara Haskell: Star Gazer has a star up in the upper part of the picture as a suggestion of that transcendent spirit rising up beyond the physical, which is represented by mountains, to this world of the spirit. There's a vessel that is illuminated by this magical light, the light of God, the light of truth, those images and metaphors that very much are part of the experience of her work.

    And then inside this vessel is a flower bud suggesting really the beginning of a new life, that sense of rebirth that comes with spiritual awareness. She began to introduce symbols like stars, flowers, vessels, mountains into her work as symbols of the journey to the other world, this journey that she experienced in dreams and meditation of seeking, finding, a union with what she called divine reality, the universal principle.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Mount of Flame, 1932

    Mount of Flame, 1932

    0:00

    Barbara Haskell: Mount of Flame is a work that represents Pelton's study of Agni Yoga, which is a spiritual discipline.

    Narrator: Curator Barbara Haskell.

    Barbara Haskell: Agni is a Hindu word meaning fire, so it's a yoga of fire. In the theory of Agni Yoga, fire was a very mysterious form that was the vessel for spiritual awareness. It was a substance that was both powerful and yet it dissolved into air. So this image of Mount of Flame, this flame being the symbol of the inner strength that would guide people to the world through those windows of illumination into the world of ethereal understanding of the divine reality.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Sand Storm, 1932

    Sand Storm, 1932

    0:00

    Carrie Moyer: My name is Carrie Moyer, and I'm a painter.

    I'm really interested in how symmetry operates, which is one of the principles that she often goes back to in the paintings. And obviously, it goes to religious art, from Christian altarpieces to the mandala. And she uses it here as something that speaks to us about a kind of curtain that we can look through. That's a device she uses a lot.

    This one is called Sand Storm. It’s a lot of this weird, muddy brown and a kind of glowing light that one can imagine coming through something that we think of as a sand storm. So there's a contradictory relationship between the palette and the title, and presumably what the subject of the painting is.

    I was very interested in how Pelton had internalized Art Deco and a lot of popular culture ways of looking at nature. And we can think about Walt Disney and certain kinds of cartooning, but this idea that nature is this kind of benevolent force and sort of magical. It's very different from how nature was depicted by European artists in the nineteenth century, which is when she was born.

  • Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

    Introduction

    Introduction

    0:00

    Barbara Haskell: I'm Barbara Haskell, curator at the Whitney Museum and curator of the Agnes Pelton show.

    Agnes Pelton is an American artist who began her career in the first part of the century. She began making paintings of single figures in landscape settings communing with nature. Sort of dreamy, symbolist works that began to get recognition in the New York art world.

    Narrator: Pelton’s work began to change in 1921, when she moved into an abandoned windmill on Long Island. She started making paintings that reflected spiritual ideas, feelings, and visions—not the outside world. She deepened these explorations when she moved to the California desert in the 1930s.

    Barbara Haskell: Her work is characterized by very ethereal, biomorphic forms. She uses glazes, and soft, layered veils of color. She talked about painting as if there were moth wings applying color to the canvas. So there's this sense of release, a kind of airiness to the picture. Beginning in the 1930s, she began to use symbols like stars and mountains as messengers or guides to the other world. But the paintings fall within the tradition of abstract painting geared toward the spirit, that seek to alert the viewer to another realm, and guide the viewer into an awareness of these higher levels of consciousness.




Images and Permissions

Sunrise

Sunset

A 30-second online art project:
Kristin Lucas, Speculative Habitat for Sponsored Seabirds

Learn more