Standing in front of Agnes Pelton’s Sea Change (1931) at the Whitney Museum recently, I heard another viewer looking at the same work say, “Now, that’s weird.” It struck me as an odd remark, because this quiet little painting seemed an unlikely work to provoke such a comment. And yet, on further inspection, there is something strange about Sea Change.
At first glance it seems to be a simple sky/cloudscape, but then the dark curve passing across the upper edge—a stylized wave shape—becomes apparent, as does the swelling form at the lower edge. The green and white mass in the center has an inverted teardrop shaped bubble emerging from it, seemingly glowing from within. Are these cloud-like forms part of the sky seen through the arch of a breaking wave, or some kind of life form emerging from the foam? Is the wave dangerous? What will happen when it comes crashing down? Something is being revealed here, but what? As one looks longer, more questions are raised than answered. The work is executed in an un-dramatic style, with inconspicuous brushwork and delicately modeled, subtle colors, but with an inner energy, and an intent beyond mere description.
In one of my favorite of her works, Sand Storm (1932), the painting’s edge is bordered by a looping line, indicating the storm’s clouds of dust, that part to reveal a glowing, blue sun/flower/mandala and a rainbow, which provide the only colors that stand apart from the dusty greens of the storm. It emits a kind of crepuscular glow, and the elements of the painting work together as a simultaneous, multiphasic evocation of order and chaos, sun and shadow, life and death.
Perhaps because they can seem somewhat old-fashioned or politely pretty, and are neither as elegantly austere nor as tastefully modern as the work of her contemporaries Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove, it is all the more surprising that Pelton’s paintings veer into an esoteric/ecstatic zone of expansive reverence. Her florals and clear blue or sunset skies can almost resemble a hobby painter’s work, but there is always an air of the beyond, like a prim grandmother who turns out to have extra sensory powers.
Pelton’s paintings confoundingly employ imagery that borders on cliché to indicate a deep feeling of immanence and grandeur. She uses rainbows, stars, birds, and especially flowers, which are not as bold nor as corporeal as those of O’Keeffe’s, but rather, are mild, fanciful, and evanescent. In Pelton’s work these well-worn tropes take on the symbolism of an idiosyncratic language all her own. Her compositions often include loopy, lacey, linear elements reminiscent of doilies or calligraphic doodling as well as abstract, undulating forms that seem to come from Art Nouveau. Many of her paintings, such as Fire Sounds (1930), feature a central motif of ectoplasmic forms, ghostly and light filled, which seem to be trying to describe the indescribable—call it the vitality, divinity, or quantum physics of nature and existence itself.
Agnes Pelton was born in 1881. After receiving a degree from the Pratt Institute, Pelton studied landscape painting with Arthur Wesley Dow, who later also taught O’Keeffe. She studied the esoteric and spiritualist writings of Madame Blavatsky on Theosophy and Occultism, as well as Japanese and Chinese art. Pelton participated in the first wave of modern art in New York during the 1910s, and two of her symbolist works were exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show.
Pelton moved to Long Island in 1921, to get closer to nature. She made her first abstractions in 1926, inspired by rays of light, and the patterns made by moving water and wind. Pelton left New York for the Southern California desert in 1931, where she wrote, “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.” She lived there until her death in 1961.
In the mid-1930s, Pelton became a founding member of a group of artists based in Taos, New Mexico, known as the Transcendental Painting Group. Their manifesto stated that their purpose was “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.”
Pelton did not make prescriptive or didactic statements with her work. Her imagined landscapes are suggestive rather than specific, evocations rather than pronouncements. With her rays, stars, flowers, glowing light, and color, Pelton seeks to reveal the sublime in the world around us. Her work feels celestial, yet grounded in the earthly realm, and majestically universal yet humble. In her paintings, the miraculous feels well within reach.