AGNES PELTON

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(1) "Star Gazer", o/c, 30 x 18", 1929
(2) "Fire Sounds", o/c, 34 x 24", 1930.
(3) "Messengers", o/c, 28 1/2 x 20 1/2", 1932. Courtesy Perlmutter Fine Arts, San Francisco.
(4) "Nurture", o/c, 30 x 25", 1940. Courtesy Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University.

by Kathy Zimmerer

(Pepperdine University, Weisman Museum of Art, Malibu) Agnes Pelton's remarkable career is sensitively and eloquently chronicled in the survey of fifty paintings that range between spiritual abstractions and glowing landscapes. A pioneer in abstraction and one of the founding members of the Transcendental Painting Group, Pelton was long a neglected figure in art history until Michael Zakian, now Director at the Weisman Museum, researched and curated this amazing retrospective.
A quiet, contemplative woman who was the granddaughter of the famous abolitionist Theodore Tilton, Pelton believed deeply in the intrinsic poetry of natural phenomena. After a childhood filled with music, art and constant travel, she lived in New York City and was invited to exhibit two of her Imaginative paintings, symbolist works that were influenced by Arthur Davies, in the famous Armory Show of 1913.

After a stint in New Mexico in 1919 with Mabel Dodge Sterne, who also introduced Georgia O' Keeffe to the Southwest, Pelton moved into the Hayground windmill at Water Mill, Long Island in 1921. Here she painted richly colored, penetrating portraits of prominent New Yorkers, and in 1926 first started painting her intensely personal organic abstractions. Abstract qualities had always permeated her earlier works such as the fluidly and loosely painted allegory West Wind (1915) and the shimmering veils of color in Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917).

At the core of all her work was a philosophical immersion in the works of the Romantic poets Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, who all explored the Spiritual in nature in their poems. With nature as a constant, Pelton transformed the poets' words into radiant imagery as in Being (1926), where the elliptical whirl of light and color coalesce to create the essence of life. In The Fountain shimmering orbs of yellow and mauve are united with translucent veils of water. Elemental natural phenomena always acted as a catalyst to Pelton as in her mysterious and beautiful painting of fiery lava, Firepit of Kilauea Volcano (1924).

Stunning abstractions such as Illumination (1930) and Star Gazer (1929) represent the apex of her refined visual poetry. While abstract, Pelton continued to reference nature. The North Star and jagged blades of ice appear in Illumination and twilight melts into the radiant hills in tin Star Gazer. In 1931, Pelton moved to Cathedral City in Palm Springs and spent the next thirty years paing her opalescent, glowing abstractions and vibrant, rich desert landscapes. Her natural repertoire of stars, clouds, waves, flowers, earth, water and fire became her poetic leitmotifs, and reemerged in such luminescent paintings as Siren Song (1934), where a golden, translucent vessel emerges from stylized, rhythmic waves.

While in the desert, Pelton also captured the startling beauty of the barren landscape. Among these works the lush Seeds of Date (1936) and the shimmering Smoke Tree series are her best. In Pelton's last unfinished painting, Light Center (1960-61), she represents a giant orb of blue white light that radiates with spiritual energy and intensity, a continuum in all of her work.
Pelton was a fascinating artist whose work adeptly bridged the span between vibrant realism and spiritual abstraction.