"Resting in twilight after reading Dostoyevsky, a quietness, thinking if I should start a landscape or go on with abstraction, and feeling poorly, can I do my best with them? ...still deeper quiet, and it seemed there was a Presence, shadowy but Real - and if so, is this He? It seemed so, and this is my first such intimation - it was an artist presence of deep, gentle power - remote, but directed toward me. So it seemed the abstractions must go on, not to stop them ever, from discouragement."
- Agnes Pelton, via a 1942 journal entry
Agnes Pelton was born in Germany to American parents in 1881. More or less a naturalist painter at the beginning of her career, she joined the Transcendentalist Painter Group - which, according to a Wiki article on Raymond Johnson: "The aim of the Transcendental Painting Group was to defend, validate and promote abstract art. They sought to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new expressions of space, color, light and design. Other members of the Transcendental Painting Group were Ed Garman, Florence Miller Pierce, Horace Towner Pierce, Agnes Pelton, Stuart Walker, Dane Rudhyar, William Lumpkins, and Lawren Harris." - in the 1930's during a trip to New Mexico. (This group is not to be confused with the American landscape painters who were also referred to as "Transcendentalists" in the early 1800's.) The goal of the Transcendentalist Painter Group was primarily enlightenment via abstraction and Jungian archetypes, with many of the members involved in Theosophy and various other esoteric pursuits. The spokesperson for the group was the renowned astrologer, Dane Rudyar, who is remembered probably more for his astrological charts than he is for his art. Examples of group's work can be found together on this page. The group disbanded at the beginning of the second World War.
I was first introduced to Pelton's work in the 1970's, when I fell in love with one of her images "Star Gazer" I'd found in a book about Visionary artists. (Note: Neo-visoinary images can be found online at Lila.) I immediately felt she was a kindred spirit, but, as the internet didn't exist in those days, information was hard to come by and, in the case of Agnes Pelton, close to impossible. She, like so many other female artists of the past centuries simply fell through the cracks, marginalized by a predominately male art regime, and, in her case, ignored by a public who preferred more conventional figurative imagery.
As you can see by the images above - "Star Gazer" is the first image on the left - Pelton's work was at once iconic and luminous. It's as if she, too, was aware of the "form language" (previously discussed) but in her imagery the forms are illuminated from within, like Chinese lanterns hovering over a deserted landscape. Then again, she considered herself a Theosophist, so this luminosity might have been, on a conscious level, part of a philosophical agenda.
Nancy Strow Sheley writes in her 2003 article about Pelton - Intellectualizing Ecstacy: The Organic and Spiritual Abstractions of Agnes Pelton - "Pelton outlined her purpose for painting in a journal entry entitled 'Knowledge.' She copied the following passage from an unidentified Theosophist: 'Spiritual transactions must be translated into the language of mortal senses that they be understood, so as to be of practical benefit to mortals who desire to be redeemed from mortality.' These words articulate Pelton’s design--to translate spiritual messages with her paintings. In brackets on that page, she added her own comments: 'This is where the forms of the natural world must appear in a picture, or can do so--not for themselves but to convey thought as future light.' Thus, light is a both a symbol and a subject in Pelton’s abstractions. It represents enlightenment and ecstasy; it also suggests inspiration and the creative force."
A number of abstract artists - specifically Kandisnky - were influenced by Theosophy (and Spiritualism) at the time, as well as a number of Eastern philosophies; all of it representing a cure for the Western religious contaminants that had infected culture for centuries, the intensifying materialism of scientific inquiry, and the existential shock that had followed in the wake of the first World War. The cure, in the case of Theosophy, was only theoretically different from the disease and historically less successful, though shreds of it resurfaced in the "New Age". But, the interesting thing about Theosophy is that it, too, had it's own version of a form language: "thought forms". I own two Theosophical books about the subject (the text of one which can be found here) but never felt inclined to actually read them for personal reasons. (My psyche seemingly developed an allergic reaction to all texts deliberately designed and/or conceived to "enlighten" it.) Helena Petrovna Blavatsky herself was a very intriguing woman, but, it's as if she was compelled to (merely) replace one religious doctrine with another... one mountain of irritating dogma with another mountain of irritating dogma. Still, I'm not one to question belief systems that keep individuals afloat. In the end, it's, well, whatever works. (Note: An interesting online biography of Blavatsky can be found here.)
I suppose what interests me most about Agnes Pelton is that I suspect she had a "muse". She mentions it in the uppermost quote as "He", but something tells me she's not referring a to religious figure. In the end it doesn't really matter how she interpreted the presence of the muse - simply that she chose to recognize its existence and write about it. The muse to me, represents a true communion with the unconscious realm, and we find a glimpse of this realm in her paintings.
As for Agnes herself, she spent the last 30 years of her life living alone in Cathedral City, California. Her last painting, the one she was working on at the time of her death, is the last one (from left to right) in the group of paintings shown above, entitled "Light Center". painted in 1961.
Paintings by Agnes Pelton featured here (click on images for a larger view):
Upper from left to right: Star Gazer, 1929; Fire Sounds, 1930; The Voice, 1930
Lower from left to right: Messengers, 1932; Wells of Jade, 1931; Light Center, 1961