Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.
(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)
Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice. Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.
Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA. In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them. They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.
Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns. As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures. The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones. (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.) Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars. A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena.