The New Generation of Transcendental Painters

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
Feb 28, 2023 10:21PM

Seeking to expand the boundaries of American art, a small bunch of like-minded artists came together in New Mexico in 1938 to form the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). Led by Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, the TPG included painters such as Agnes Pelton and Robert Gribbroek. According to their original manifesto, the term “transcendental” best expressed their aim “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.”

By 1941, with the onset of World War II, the group officially dissolved, which might partly explain why their mystical oeuvres have often been overlooked by art historians and critics alike. However, these remarkable artists and their respective works have recently garnered renewed attention. Currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) through June 19th, “Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945” is the first major traveling museum exhibition dedicated to the work of these painters.


Interestingly, this overdue spotlight comes at a time when there seems to be a growing number of contemporary artists exploring nonobjectivity and mysticism in styles reminiscent of the pieces produced by members of the TPG. However, unlike their predecessors who were strictly concerned with themes of idealism and spirituality, many of today’s artists are reflecting on pressing philosophical and societal issues.

Below, we highlight eight artists who belong to a new generation experimenting with light, color, shapes, and space in new and unexpected ways.

Loie Hollowell

B. 1983, Woodland, California. Lives and works in New York.

Drawing on abstract shapes such as mandalas and lingams, Loie Hollowell’s playful canvases explore themes related to the intimacy of the female body. Using materials like sawdust and foam board, she infuses her pieces with dimension and texture while manipulating space and light. In fact, Hollowell regards light as one of the main contents of her work: “By that I mean illusory light and real light because my paintings are actually physical,” she said in a recent interview. “They’re built up on the surface of the painting, so light will hit the edges of the structured physical objects and create a glowing light on different parts of the painting.”

Hollowell’s work has been likened to that of founding TPG member Agnes Pelton. “Love Letter,” a group exhibition presented at Pace in New York earlier this year—and curated by Hollowell alongside Harminder Judge—presented pieces by the New York–based artist in conversation with Pelton’s works. While Pelton gained widespread recognition only after her death, due in large part to the major traveling exhibition “Desert Transcendentalist,” Hollowell is turning heads during her lifetime with the help of Pace and Jessica Silverman, which jointly represent her.

Hollowell’s current show, “Tick Tock Belly Clock”—the artist’s first institutional solo exhibition in the U.S., on view at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis, through May 8th—is a testament to the exciting things to come.

Inka Essenhigh

B. 1969, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Lives and works in New York.

Lauded for her brilliant use of color, Inka Essenhigh creates otherworldly landscape paintings riddled with sprites and supernatural archetypes. While many of her earlier works contain references to graphic novels and animation, some of her latest pieces, such as Purple Pods (ca. 2019) and Orange Fall (2020), draw on botanical themes to create oneiric compositions that blur the boundaries between figuration and abstraction.

Essenhigh is, at times, associated with contemporary figurative painting. Yet her ethereal imagery is ultimately nonobjective, a genuine product of her imagination. Referencing this quality of her work, she has said, “The unknown comes from the painting process, putting brush to canvas. I do have an agenda and a world I want to create. I’m not interested in meaninglessness. But I am looking for the feeling that the images are coming to me.”

Zoe McGuire

B. 1996, Albany, New York. Lives and works between New York and Detroit.

In Zoe McGuire’s paintings, luminous orbs resembling astral objects are surrounded by impressive geometrical forms and mesmerizing lines. Using rich tones that twist and undulate, McGuire creates fantastical settings. Some of her vibrant compositions, as seen in Birth of a Galaxy (2022) and Half Light (2022), conjure dreamlike landscapes and natural motifs, highly reminiscent of the styles of acclaimed Southwest-based American painters Agnes Pelton and Georgia O’Keeffe.

With a BA from Skidmore College, the rising artist—who predominantly uses oil, charcoal, and pastel to create her striking pieces—is set to graduate this year with an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and has already received gallery representation from Gaa Gallery. This year, McGuire will be the subject of solo exhibitions at Gaa Gallery in New York, Library Street Collective in Detroit, and Taymour Grahne Projects in London.

Joani Tremblay

B. 1984, Montreal, Canada. Lives and works between Montreal and New York.

Using images pulled from social media, advertisements, and her own memory, Joani Tremblay creates vibrant digital collages that she meticulously transfers onto canvas. The result is a series of idyllic oil paintings that often evoke natural and metaphysical themes to explore and question our relationship with places, landscapes, and skyscapes.

Many of Tremblay’s layered compositions are informed by intericonicity, a semiotics concept that refers to the existence of an image within another image. This quality is palpable in Tremblay’s recent pieces, such as Untitled (waterfall) (2022). Exhibited alongside Inka Essenhigh’s work in Anat Ebgi’s 2022 group exhibition “If you forget my name, You will go astray,” the painting features a fiery sun set against a dreamy sky that’s framed by striking, undulating waves embellished by two peaches.

Tremblay explores intericonicity even further in her titular solo exhibition at Harper’s, on view through March 11th. In Untitled (Laurel Highlands) (2022), for example, a breathtaking vista of lush peaks is engulfed by a graphic blue-green frame that both complements and disturbs the mountainous view.

Alicia Adamerovich

B. 1989, Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Lives and works in New York.

Alicia Adamerovich’s tenebrous paintings and sculptures use shadows and cryptic shapes to explore the human subconscious and intimate psychological states like angst and anxiety. Adamant about the nonobjective quality of her works, the artist said in an interview last year, “These forms represent thoughts and feelings. I’m not trying to remake anything from our physical world; everything I’m making is psychological.”

Both sides of Adamerovich’s practice—painting and sculpture—are currently on view in the solo exhibition “This is the time of the hour,” on view at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles through March 11th. Carved in unintelligible forms, her wooden sculptures are, at times, inspired by nature, conserving curves reminiscent of the forests their materials hail from. Meanwhile, her paintings, such as Horny for Happiness (2022) and Setting my teeth on edge (2022), are somber and seductive all at once, conjuring moonlit landscapes from another planet.

Ben Sanders

B. 1989, Arcadia, California. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Growing up, Ben Sanders spent a great deal of time in his father’s workshop observing how Hollywood sets were built and brought to life. This experience encouraged him to pursue an artistic career. Today, Sanders’s multidisciplinary practice is difficult to define. He works across a wide range of mediums to create drawings, sculptures, murals, and immersive experiences. And his kaleidoscopic paintings—which the artist has been known to create on all sorts of surfaces, from large bottle caps to plant pots—feature numerous motifs like brand logos and gardens.

However, it is Sanders’s recent light-filled paintings, such as Silence (2022) and Siren III (2022), that invoke the mystical style of the New Mexico–based Transcendentalist Painting Group. While the TPG sought to depict scenes beyond our physical world, Sanders, as seen in his recent solo exhibition “Deep Time” at OCHI in Los Angeles, presents richly rendered spherical forms in sleek graphic landscapes that survey visions of a post-human future.

Molly Greene

B. 1986, Cornwall, Vermont. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Molly Greene’s surreal works are deeply informed by her impressive academic background. She has studied themes such as science, technology, and gender, and holds multiple degrees from Yale University, including a PhD, MA, and MPhil in American studies, as well as an MESc in environmental science. Greene began painting in 2018 after moving to Los Angeles to complete her doctoral dissertation. Since then, she has interrogated binary forms of thinking by producing imagery that is purposefully difficult to categorize.

One particular body of work, which includes Ponies (2020) and Tooth and Claw (2019), features enthralling, unintelligible figures inspired by the artist’s brown hair. Meanwhile, in her most recent works like Interference Study #4 (2022) and Deadfall (2022), Greene offers luminous contemplations of sacred geometrical forms. Her upcoming solo show “Operator” at Richard Heller Gallery is set to open on April 1st.

Theodora Allen

B. 1985, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

By applying and removing delicate layers of watercolor and oil paint on linen canvases, Theodora Allen creates soulful, ghostly works that investigate the liminal space between reality and reverie. Speaking about her meticulous technique, Allen told Office Magazine, “My painting process is slow and precise. The light source in the work comes from the white ground (the gesso), so there’s a certain amount of preservation that takes place in order to maintain that purity and glow from underneath.”

Allen’s luminous, blue-hued paintings are riddled with symbolism and imaginary motifs inspired by nature, literature, and music. Mesmerizing celestial bodies are centered in pieces like Shield (Moon) (2020) and Falling Star (Memento Mori) (2021), while spiritual archetypes, including moths and snakes, are softly portrayed in works like From the Watchtower (Double Moth no. 4) (2020). Present throughout her mystical pieces are themes of quietude, order, harmony, balance, distance, permanence, and ephemerality.

Salomé Gómez-Upegui

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Zoe McGuire is having solo shows with Gaa Projects in Cologne and Louis Buhl & Co. in Detroit. The artist is having solo shows at Gaa Gallery in New York and Library Street Collective in Detroit.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019