Why Agnes Pelton’s Pretty Paintings Play Well Right Now

Alina Cohen
Mar 13, 2020 4:19PM

Unknown, Agnes Pelton, 1957. Courtesy of Nyna Dolby and Carolyn Tilton Cunningham Family Collection.

Agnes Pelton, Ahmi in Egypt, 1931. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

It’s an oddity of our times that Agnes Pelton is having a moment. An early 20th-century painter who lived much of her life just outside Palm Springs, Pelton was removed from the major art movements and communities of her day: Dada, Surrealism, Conceptualism, Muralism, and Abstract Expressionism. Instead of considering the ravages of the wars or the Great Depression she lived through, she created luminous paintings of stars, clouds, the sea, and the land, many of which border on abstraction. For money, she sold portraits and desert landscapes that were popular with tourists.

Yet the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new exhibition, “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” (up through June 28th), situates Pelton within art-historical narratives that have become increasingly popular over the past few years. First, she’s a female artist who wasn’t appreciated in her day. Second—like Hilma af Klint, whose work recently enjoyed a blockbuster Guggenheim show—Pelton embraced mysticism and spirituality in her work (she also believed in astrology). And third, like Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelton ultimately chose the West and the desert over the heady, competitive East Coast. These comparisons, nevertheless, don’t seem relevant—the others, history tells us, painted to survive. Pelton, on the other hand, comes across as an artist who painted as a meditative exercise, expressing little true ambition while making attractive pictures. The exhibition raises the question: Whose work truly deserves a second look—and a full show at a major institution?

Agnes Pelton, Sea Change, 1931. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


Pelton was born in 1881 in Germany to a wealthy American family. They relocated to New York in 1888. Three years later, Pelton’s father died of a morphine overdose. The young artist studied at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, under the tutelage of modernist Arthur Wesley Dow. Pelton kept painting, studying life drawing at the British Academy in Rome when she was 29 years old. She began exhibiting in her thirties and got interested in Theosophy, which united Eastern and Western religious traditions (and, in the 1970s, provided the basis for New Age thinking). From 1921 until her 1961 death, Pelton lived in Water Mill, New York, and Cathedral City, California. “She was very private and sought solitude,” said Gilbert Vicario, chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, which organized the first edition of the Pelton show last year. “I think it limited her connection with the outside world. It’s both positive and negative.”

An illustrative, Disneyfied sensibility pervades Pelton’s oeuvre. Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), which opens the show, features a woman in a plum gown, crossing her heart and staring at a yellow bird surrounded by a faint glow. The woman’s light, cherubic visage promotes tired ideas of femininity—there’s a preciousness worthy of a cartoon Cinderella. Two little pigeons appear at the lower left corner of Winter (1933), beneath a light pink mass. Orbits (1934), a dreamy picture far too literal in its execution, features bright, dotted loops studded with stars. Pelton’s work suffers from compositional sameness: Incandescent twists, balls of light, and floral shapes appear dead center on her canvases.

Agnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932. Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum.

The exhibition also includes two portraits, Intimation (1933) and Barna Dilae (1935), which are more ghoulish than lifelike. The former, which may be based on spiritual leader Nicholas Roerich, features haunting, unreal, wide-open yellow and blue eyes. There’s a light insidiousness in depicting a fringe religious leader as an idealized spirit—that’s the kind of perspective that could lead to cult worship.

Despite Pelton’s appreciation of mysticism, she remained a devout Christian throughout her life. “She always adhered to her family’s core Christian belief that the world is God’s precious gift and the purpose of life is to pursue the good,” writes Michael Zakian in the exhibition catalogue. That sentiment, which can do good for communities when turned outward, becomes cloying in modern art. If artists believe all they’ve been told, there’s no room for questioning or productive discomfort in their work.

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum.

Agnes Pelton, The Ray Serene, 1925. Photo by Jairo Ramirez. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art and Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick.

“A gentle, generous, caring personality, she accepted all types of art and human experience as equally revealing of deeper truths,” Zakian writes. Therein lies Pelton’s fatal flaw. Everyone may indeed have the capacity to unlock creativity within themselves, but in my mind, style, taste, a strong stance, and a certain aesthetic stubbornness are requisites to great art. If you believe that everything is good and worthwhile, you don’t really stand for anything at all. Work made from that perspective becomes flattened and anodyne. A reluctance to challenge, investigate, or reconsider aesthetic and social norms leads to diluted sensibilities. Your viewer is left saying, “Oh, a pretty picture,” and moving right along.

Alina Cohen