Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on December 14, 2009 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature

by Michael Zakian


It is not often one rediscovers a great, but forgotten, American artist; rarer still, one who embodies a talent equal to Agnes Pelton. The retrospective exhibition, Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, which has been touring the country since it opened at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in spring 1995, brings to light an historically important artist who possessed an independent, innovative vision.

Agnes Pelton (1881 - 1961) was a pioneering American modernist whose nature- based abstractions, begun in the mid -1920s, established a new direction for progressive painting in this country. Pelton's works were poetic celebrations of nature that explored the vital forces animating the physical world.

Interested in themes of creation, growth, and radiance, Pelton translated favorite subjects -- a glowing star, an opening flower -- into life-affirming images of rare beauty and resonance. In many ways, her paintings resemble the art of her contemporary Georgia O'Keeffe, only more colorful, more spiritual, and more imaginative.

Pelton led a fascinating, bohemian life. Born in 1881 to American parents in Stuttgart, Germany, she was raised in Brooklyn, New York. The granddaughter of Theodore Tilton, a leader in America's abolitionist movement, Pelton supported idealist principles throughout her life. Her father, William Halsey Pelton, was the idle son of a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner. He lived a dissolute life: ignoring family obligations, traveling through Europe. A manic-depressive, he died of a morphine overdose when Agnes was nine.

Her mother, Florence Tilton, was studying music at Stuttgart Conservatory when Agnes was born. After her husband's death, Florence returned to her family home of Brooklyn and opened the Pelton School of Music, a piano school she operated for the next thirty years.

Her father's early demise left Pelton a melancholy, introverted young girl. In 1895, at the age of fourteen, she enrolled in the general art course at Pratt Institute. She had the good fortune to study with Arthur Wesley Dow, an important figure in American art education, probably best known for instructing Georgia O'Keeffe. Pelton graduated in 1900 with classmate Max Weber, another early American modernist.

During the 1910s, Pelton located her studios at the center of radical politics and avant-garde art, Greenwich Village. She began to produce her first independent works: a series of symbolist figure compositions in pastoral settings that she called her "Imaginative" paintings. Pelton wrote they represented "moods of nature symbolically expressed." Inspired by the art of Arthur B. Davies, these charming images recalled the British Romantic poets and turn-of-the-century European aestheticism. Two were included in the landmark Armory Show of 1913.

Pelton's life and art changed radically with her mother's death in 1921. She turned her back on Manhattan and relocated to a historic windmill near Southampton, Long Island. Pelton's life became a quest for peace and solitude. She was enchanted by the seclusion of her quaint windmill home: a "mystical house, reaching into heaven and radiating from its center, distributing sustenance." In this spiritual environment the artist turned inward and began to paint abstractions based on natural phenomena in 1926.

The last chapter of Pelton's life began in 1932, when the windmill was sold by its owner. At the age of fifty, Pelton traveled cross-country and settled in Cathedral City, a small town adjacent to Palm Springs, California. She originally planned a short stay, but, taken by the region's stark beauty, she remained for the last thirty years of her life. Pelton explained, "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." Her California abstractions captured the region's glowing light and vibrant aura.

The artist's life in California was largely uneventful; she rarely left the desert. Though a group of young modernists worked in Los Angeles during the 1930s, she did not associate with them. But in 1938, she helped found the Transcendental Painting Group, an association of New Mexico artists committed to spiritual abstraction.

Raymond Johnson, their leader, invited Pelton to act as the group's first president, though she was the only member who did not reside in New Mexico. Pelton was ten years Johnson's senior, and twenty to thirty years older than the others. They looked to her as a role model. In particular, they admired her ability to pursue an independent artistic vision, far removed from any major art community.

Ironically, Pelton's art, although little-known today, was acknowledged and acclaimed during her lifetime. Besides participating in the Armory Show, she exhibited in various New York galleries, such as McBeth and Knoedler, in the 1910s and 1920s. Pelton was honored, during the 1930s and 1940s, with one-person exhibitions at all of California's major art museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Laguna Art Museum, and the San Diego Museum of Art. Unfortunately, interest in her work declined after World War II. Pelton had no family, and did not possess the energy or charisma to actively promote herself. She died a neglected figure in 1961, at the age of eighty.

Pelton's experiments with abstraction placed her at the forefront of the American movement in the late 1920s and 1930s. While chronologically aligned to this group, Pelton differed from her abstract contemporaries in age, temperament, and approach to art.

Pelton was approaching fifty when she painted her first abstractions; maturity added a certain depth to her art. She came to abstraction with a deepening perspective that reached beyond the youthful energy of the movement's other leaders, still in their twenties and thirties.

Pelton's identity as a child of the late nineteenth century colored her outlook as well as her artwork. In sensibility, she remained a late romantic of the symbolist generation. She based her aesthetic on nature's complexity, rather than the purity of abstract form. Compositions arose from her intuitive insights into the shape and structure of natural processes. Pelton celebrated abundance and plenitude, producing paintings that were prodigious, rather than reductive. She used art to explore the world's infinite marvels, to celebrate the mystery and grandeur of nature.

Messengers, one of Pelton's first desert abstractions, embodies all her stylistic features. She depicted desert heat as a soothing, nurturing vase, a tranquil well of light rising above the dry, rocky, inhospitable terrain. It is topped by a series of vibrant yellow palm fronds which offer shade and refuge (Pelton's first desert home was roofed with palm thatch). The form of the vase often appears in her art, symbolizing comfort, containment, and security.

Pelton's aesthetic differed from mainstream currents. Paradoxically, while her paintings were innovative and modern, she remained indifferent to modernism. Pelton never employed a flat, planar style; never used abstract form as an end in itself. She opposed the use of rigorous analysis to pare form to its essential elements. Total non-objectivity held no meaning for Pelton; she felt it lacked heart, soul, and emotion.

For her, painting was always a descriptive enterprise. She strove to pay nature homage, not to rival it. Pelton did not want to invent non-objective structures; she desired to penetrate reality's veil, to reveal deep forces beneath surface appearances. Even when culled from recesses of imagination, her forms allude to concrete objects in real space, surrounded by an envelope of light and air that alludes to our spatial environment.

At a time when most abstract painters rejected the literary, Pelton embraced it. Once, she went so far as to claim she was not an artist, but a poet. She believed poets accepted material realities and expanded upon them. Her art adopted the conceits and conventions of poetry or theater. She saw her abstractions as stage settings or windows onto a parallel existence. In a statement for her 1929 exhibition at Montross Gallery, she wrote:

These pictures are like little windows, opening to the view of a region not yet much visited consciously or by intention -- an inner realm, rather than an outer landscape.
Sometimes the view is peaceful, even complete calm, or it may be active, stirring; but there is no semblance of material things or substances visible here, except when a symbol materializes into the language of named things.

Pelton was raised in a religious family and produced gentle, serene art filled with humility. The world, she believed, was kind and benign, a place of joy and peace. Pelton's two favorite words were "felicity" and "beneficence." Thus, the beauty of her art is rooted in her conviction that the world is essentially a beautiful place. Angst, rage, and turmoil had no place in Pelton paintings; her universe was full of grace.

The Christian notion of self-sacrifice influenced Pelton. Her favorite subjects all give of themselves selflessly: plants yield fruit, flowers provide scent and visual beauty, stars offer light, and flames produce heat. Yet in the process, each is consumed.

Pelton saw her own life as an artist in similar terms of self-sacrifice. By painting her abstractions, she could give herself to others, with no thought for personal fame or profit. Even though her abstractions rarely sold, she never abandoned these paintings which she considered to be her calling. Her abstractions were her gift to the world.

As an adult, Pelton broadened her Christian perspective to include other religions and philosophies. Today, such thinking would be called "new age." She believed in astrology and maintained a thirty-year friendship with American astrologer and musical composer Dane Rudhyar. In the 1920s and 1930s, Pelton followed Madame Blavatsky's theosophy, Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, and an obscure cult called Agni Yoga. In the 1940s, she became interested in the writings of Krishnamurti.

One astrological tenet, the notion of correspondence, held special meaning for Pelton. Predicated on the meaningful correlation between radically dissimilar phenomena, astrology sees the cosmos as a series of coordinated events, ruled by a greater intelligence. Pelton's compositions tried to picture the workings of this higher power.

Energy was a central theme in Pelton's art. She believed it lay at the heart of all creation, giving life and replenishing nature's dynamic process. She was in awe of the vital forces governing natural cycles, particularly the magical transformations of organic life: birth, growth, death, and rebirth. Pelton believed energy caused seeds to sprout, light to emanate from stars, and warmth to emerge from within living bodies.

Rays appear often in her art. These beams are vehicles of radiance, transmitting energy from one point to another. Unlike the Italian Futurists, who used rays to represented frenetic movement, Pelton used the image to symbolize calm and stability. In Red and Blue Abstraction a beam of light is surrounded with repetitive curving shapes. The ray is an ordering device, bringing order into a chaotic realm.

Pelton believed energy was also the essence of human thought. Thinking allowed humans to channel the universal life force for specific goals. She was intrigued by the power of emotion, and looked for signs of its presence in non-humans things. In the late 1940s, she did a series of detailed studies of passion flower blossoms, culminating in an oil painting of the same title. Passion Flower is dark at the bottom and light ontop, depicting the transformation from night to day. A central, open blossom signals the emergence of human desire.

Pelton's art was synesthetic, concerned with finding connections between the senses. She used pictorial images to recreate a myriad of sensations including sight, but also sound, smell, taste, and touch. Many Pelton compositions combine conflicting sensations: hot/cold, hard/soft, sharp/smooth. Meadowlark's Song, Winter is one example of synesthesia, depicting a dramatic sunrise over a cold winter landscape. While the composition's basic structure is representational, Pelton took great liberty in depicting the rising sun as an otherworldly image of radiance, symbolizing of the sun's transfer of warmth to a cold Earth. Circles, edged with sharp points, symbolize biting cold.

Pelton always revered nature, but also found transcendence in non-western cultures. The ancient resplendence of Egypt and Greece awed her. These civilizations represented a repository of timeless wisdom, long lost to modern minds. Lotus for Lida embodies her regard for their lessons: the flower, a sacred image in Egyptian and Asian cultures, appears mirage-like, floating above the Nile River.

While her interest in numerous spiritual programs points to a broad-minded world view, it also indicated a certain self-doubt. Though Pelton remained devoted to abstractions, her journals are full of self-questioning passages. She constantly sought guidance or affirmation for her decisions, and embraced various ideologies and spiritual disciplines in search of concrete guidance. Often, Pelton imposed arbitrary rules on her working habits -- like requiring that she devote at least two days a week to the abstractions -- to create order and structure in her life.

Pelton's manner of working was slow, thoughtful, and deliberate. Her output knew no bravura flourishes or outpourings of expressionist energy. Her manner mirrored nature's slow, steady pace. Many have commented that Pelton oils look like they were executed with an airbrush, though she always utilized conventional brushes, and numerous layers of paint. For some works, Pelton kept diary-like records of their genesis. Typically, the notes record the artist glazing one color in a small part of the image, and leaving it sit for weeks, even months. This painstaking process required great concentration and devotion.

Ideas came to her when she was in a receptive, meditative state. In dreams or waking visions, Pelton saw entire compositions. Typically, such drawings consisted of basic forms, outlined in broad terms, and accompanied by detailed color notes. Occasionally, Pelton began to paint soon after her initial thought, but in later years, her ideas would languish for months, even years, before she took up a brush. As Pelton aged, and her energies began to fail, many were never executed.

Pelton's indifference to formalism kept her from exploring serial form or producing variations on a theme. She believed that nature revealed itself most fully in discrete moments, and that individual perception was unique and could not be duplicated. While all her images bear the signs of her sensibility -- distinctly "Pelton" -- she never developed a signature style or image. She remained wedded to a world of pictorial images, not abstract concepts.

As a woman painting nature-based abstraction in the Great American Desert in the 1930s and 1940s, Pelton's career calls to mind that of her more famous contemporary Georgia O'Keeffe. The parallels between their lives are remarkable. Pelton, who was six years older, studied with Arthur Wesley Dow, who was also O'Keeffe's teacher. She also knew Mabel Dodge -- the great patron of the arts in New Mexico -- and was invited to Taos in 1919, a full decade before O'Keeffe made her first trip to the Southwest. O'Keeffe first visited the New Mexico desert in 1929; Pelton moved permanently to the California desert in 1932.

Pelton did not have a Alfred Stieglitz to support her and promote her career. She always supported herself from her art. Because sales of abstractions were negligible, she had to find other ways to supplement her income. While living in the windmill, she lived through portrait commissions. Once she moved to California, she turned to landscape painting and earned a modest living selling desert scenes to tourists.

The desert paintings form a problematic chapter in Pelton's career. Her own opinion of them varied from year to year, even from month to month. At times, she saw them as a distraction from the abstractions, which she considered her true work. At other times, she saw them as an integral part of her art. She felt that the abstractions captured the invisible beauty of nature; the landscapes paid homage to the visible beauty of nature. The landscapes simply were another way of paying respect to the forces and images of the natural world.

About the Author

Michael Zakian has been director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University since 1995. This art historian, curator and critic has lectured and written extensively on modern and American art. A native of New York City, he received a B.A. in art history from Columbia University. He pursued graduate studies at Rutgers -- The State University of New Jersey, which awarded him an M.A. and a Ph.D., both focused on American Abstract Expressionism. He is the former curator of the Palm Springs Desert Museum and the author of numerous books including Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, Sam Francis: Elements & Archetypes, Wayne Thiebaud: Works 1955 to 2003 and Russell Forester: Unauthorized Autobiography. He has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Redlands and California State University, San Bernardino.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 14, 2009 with with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on October 7, 2009.

This article appeared in the June - August 1996 issue of American Art Review. It pertains to an exhibition entitled Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, which was organized by the Palm Springs Desert Museum, where it opened February 28 - April 30, 1995. The show's itinerary included stops at the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey (July 8 - October 15, 1995); the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York (December 3, 1995 - January 14, 1996); the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan (February 3 - April 6, 1996); the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu (May 4 - July 7, 1996); and the Oakland Museum (August 3 - October 6, 1996). The exhibition was accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue published by the Palm Springs Desert Museum.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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