As a child Agnes Pelton traveled with her mother through Europe and the United States.  The family lived awhile in Switzerland but Pelton suffered from bronchitis and doctors suggested that she move to a milder climate.  In 1888 the family left Europe and moved to Brooklyn, New York.  Unfortunately, Pelton’s father did not like the U.S. and he returned to Germany to live.  He died in 1891 when Pelton was only ten.

Pelton was raised by her mother who opened a music school to support the small family.  In 1895 the young artist enrolled at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute where she studied with Arthur Wesley Dow.  Unlike other art teachers, Dow discouraged drawing to imitate reality and instead encouraged his students to do creative exercises that emphasized a dynamic arrangement of black and white masses.  Dow advocated abstract relationships and the push and pull of opposites.  This early teaching that encouraged experimentation and thinking in less specific concrete terms was to influence Pelton all of her life.  More than likely it was Dow’s approach that gave Pelton the courage to embrace abstraction.

Pelton served as Dow’s assistant at his summer school in Ipswich, Massachusetts but in the fall of 1900 became ill and did not paint for a number of years.  She began again in 1907 working in an art colony in Connecticut where she made studies of the effects of light.   Her paintings then were of figures outside, bathed in beautiful atmospheric light.

In 1910 Pelton’s interests took her to Italy where she studied for a year.  There she became familiar with Walter Pater’s book on the Renaissance that emphasized the importance of tuning into energy and natural phenomena.  This symbolist approach validated Pelton’s desire to respond to the subtleties of atmosphere and light and gave her permission to tap into her natural introspective state.  Back in New York the paintings she had been doing evolved into what she called Imaginative paintings—images of solitary, meditative figures, usually women, in pastoral landscapes.  Pelton described these works as moods of nature and took for their inspiration the poetic symbolist paintings of Arthur B. Davies.  Two of these Imaginative paintings were included in the famous Armory Show in New York in 1913.

In 1921 Pelton left New York City and took up residence in a windmill on Long Island.  She stayed there for ten years and made a living painting portraits.  She was sustained by the portraits financially as well as spiritually, having given herself the challenge of not simply rendering physical reality rather depicting the individual’s inner spirit.

In1926 Pelton executed her first abstractions based on the movements of air and water, and the light emanating from the stars.  Unlike many other artists who were experimenting with abstraction, Pelton did not feel the need to make an art historical or political statement with her work.  For Pelton the abstract work developed naturally, as a part of her evolution as a human being.  Her desire to make visible the positive force she felt was present in the universe was part and parcel of her painting as well as her personality.

In 1931 the windmill was sold and Pelton decided to move to the desert of California.  Her biographer, Michael Zakian, observes that “the paradoxes and dualities (Pelton) explored in her abstractions—contrasts between air and matter, wet and dry, hot and cold—appeared regularly in the desert.”  The transformation the desert went through every spring as harsh plants burst into flower enchanted this artist who was attracted to nature’s opposites.

Simultaneous with her move to California, Pelton became intrigued with Eastern Philosophies.  They appealed to her interest in natural phenomena as well as to her gentle spirit which embraced nature’s divinity.  Pelton’s abstract paintings reflect her spiritual interest in philosophies that endorsed the unity of all life.  Through these colorful canvases filled with rays, stars, flowers and undulating forms, Pelton explores the forces that make up existence—air, fire, water and light.  Her approach is in keeping with symbolist thought which encouraged artists to make visible the power and spirit of nature.  Pelton said that these images came to her while she was in a meditative state and recognized that they were difficult for others to comprehend.  Often when she exhibited the abstractions, she wrote poems to accompany the paintings, hoping that they would help explain her approach.

During this time Pelton painted both realistic desert landscapes as well as the transcendental abstractions that she is recognized for today.  She struggled to reconcile the two styles but ultimately concluded that to do them both was necessary.  She understood that the abstract paintings were personal and more essential for her spirit, but the landscape works allowed her to celebrate the desert and, more importantly, earned her a living.

In 1938 Raymond Jonson founded the Transcendental Painting Group in New Mexico and asked Agnes Pelton to serve as the groups first president.  The group looked to Pelton as a mentor because they embraced her pursuit of spiritual abstraction.  The group sought to make paintings that were purely creative, where lines and forms took shape from the imagination not from objective reality.  They believed that Pelton’s abstractions that radiate light and energy made tangible and spiritual presence.

Despite the fact that Pelton was widely recognized by other artists, she was not as broadly celebrated in her lifetime as she is today.  Quiet and gentle, Pelton did not promote herself.  She had no steady advocate and as a result finances were always a concern.  After a period that had been dedicated solely to landscapes, she began a new series of abstractions in 1950.  Many paintings of this series were based on circles—a symbol of unity and cohesion.  For Pelton the circle was the ultimate image of transcendence.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s Pelton had a number of one person exhibitions in museums including the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, the Laguna Beach Art Association, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and was represented by galleries in New York and California.  Pelton also participated in a number of group shows in museums including the 1940 Guggenheim exhibition of the Transcendental Painting Group.  Today her paintings can be found in the public collections of the Oakland Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, the Palm Springs Desert Museum, and the Utah State University Museum.


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Agnes Pelton (1881 - 1961) Germany / United States

AGNES PELTON

Radiance

c. 1929, oil on canvas, 14” x 16”

AGNES PELTON

Voyaging

 1931, oil on canvas, 17” x 14”

AGNES PELTON

Idyl

c. 1952, oil on canvas, 20” x 19”