Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist
New York CityWhitney Museum of Art
That a contemplative artist like Agnes Pelton (1881 – 1961) is having an exhibition in a shuttered museum, as her viewers are experiencing enforced reclusion during a pandemic lockdown, has a profound synchronicity. As we witness the implosion of a world ruled by consumerism, positivism, and scientific materialism, the Lenten practices of reflection and introspection have descended upon the city like a penance enforced by circumstance. Pelton experienced her share of darkness: a father’s early death by morphine overdose, poor health, nervous disorders, periods of poverty, and the dark cloud of a Gilded Age sex scandal that hung over her family. Like her rough contemporary Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944), Pelton was a visionary interested in occult pursuits who communicated with inner spiritual guides. Both were also readers of Helena Blavatsky (1831 – 1891), the Russian mystic, encyclopedic source of ancient wisdom traditions, and founder of the Theosophy Society. Yet, in spite of their similarities as spiritual seekers, Pelton was a very different painter. Her paintings reference a pictorial space dissimilar to af Klint’s—one that was first described by the more mystical members of the Russian Cosmism movement who were to influence Wassily Kandinsky and Nicholas Roerich. Pelton comes to us like an angelic messenger in our dark hour. Her Pilgrim’s Progress through esoteric spiritual traditions, reliance on inner voices, purity of purpose, and monastic devotion to her art, represent a less-worn path that artists might benefit from treading today. Pelton’s inner light feels like a guiding lamp during our coronavirus plague and inundation in all-consuming materialism.
Pelton read and was influenced by Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (1910), and his words resonate in our age of ever-expanding art commerce:
This all-important spark of inner life today is at present only a
spark. Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after
years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief,
of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which
has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game,
is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip.
Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of
darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul,
when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a
dream, and the gulf of darkness reality. This doubt, and the
still harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy.1
Russian Cosmism was all about future existence, a combination of science, natural philosophy, ethics, Eastern and Western thought, and astronomy and space—projecting man into the cosmos. Cosmism fell into two camps, the radical biopolitical utopianists whose reputations are now experiencing a resurgence due to new translations by critics like Boris Groys, and the religious visionaries influenced by Nikolai Fedorov, cosmism’s central philosopher. The theoretical ideas of the religious visionaries like Father Pavel Florensky have received less attention due to their tragic fates and formerly suppressed writing. Those rejecting atheism and the official doctrine of dialectical materialism either fled after the revolution or faced imprisonment and death. Alexander Yaroslavsky was shot in 1930. Florensky, the theologian, scientist, philosopher, and art historian, was shot in 1937. Wassily Kandinsky escaped to Germany. Helena and Nicholas Roerich traveled to Finland, England, the United States, and throughout the Himalayas, establishing the Master Institute of United Arts in New York in 1921 and the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute in northern India in 1928 for the study of botany, ethnological-linguistic studies, and sacred texts. Cosmism had a direct impact on the artists immersed in Eastern spirituality like the group Amaravella (Sanskrit for “sprouts of immortality”)2 close to the Roerichs’s circle.
Pelton and the Roeriches shared the New York esoteric world and travel in New Mexico, experiences reflected in their work. Pelton was a student of the Agni Yoga Society founded in 1920 in New York by the Roeriches—a study she was introduced to by the composer and humanist astrologer, Dane Rudhyar in 1930. Pelton’s painting Intimation (1933) portrays both a guru and animus figure representing Agni Yoga. The Roeriches spent a summer in Santa Fe in 1921, and Pelton first visited Taos and the art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1919. Nicholas Roerich was a set designer, and his work uses linear perspective and relies on Russian folk art and landscape genre painting. Pelton's use of transparency and achievement of a mystical pictorial space described by Florensky is masterful; she surpassed Roerich as a painter, whose paintings feel like flat pictorial representations. Through an act of divine intuition, she accomplishes what Roerich could not, in spite of his many accomplishments. Her inner voyages are as great as his Himalayan treks.
Florensky described the icon as a kind of window, an opening through which God can illuminate the viewer. His aesthetic arguments were in support of icons and the superiority of mystical Slavic aesthetics over the materialistic Western conception of schematic linear perspective. Unlike the Albertian window, where the eye of the viewer opens onto a vista receding into space through single-point perspective, we see the opposite with Florensky’s reverse perspective. Through the power of the believer’s faith, the icon becomes the opening through which God’s magnificence radiates outward, becoming larger, as it leaves the viewer. We see this in Pelton’s works like The Fountains (1926), Being (1926) Radiance (1929), Wells of Jade (1931), and Winter (1933), which feature a window. The light source travels from behind and flows toward the viewer. Pelton discusses both the window and the icon in her notebooks. In 1929 she wrote, “Those pictures are like little windows, opening to the view of a region, much visited consciously or by intention—an inner realm, rather than an outer landscape.3
And concerning icons, she observed, “Some of the old Russian ikons [sic] emit radiance quite perceptible to the sensitive. That it was not brilliant did not make a difference… The divine light of a halo reverently executed by a painter consecrated to his work emitted a radiance, no matter how dim.”4
Florensky theorized that the use of reverse perspective in icons was a superior method of representation, along with what he called poly-centredness, or multiple viewpoints. The same idea may be found later in Ursprung und Gegenwart (1949), by the Bernese philosopher Jean Gebser (an English translation titled The Ever-Present Origin appeared in 1986). Gebser uses the term aperspectival, arguing that by being able to move through and around an object (as one can in a hologram), a new spiritual perception occurs. In Pelton’s paintings like The Fountains (1926), Meadowlark’s Song (1926), Winter (1926), and The Blast (1941), the transparency of the shapes causes the viewer to enter the painting as though floating in a four-dimensional world, moving in and around the forms. Pelton is able to not only project light outward using a reverse perspective, but also through transparency moves the viewer into Gebser’s aperspectival realm of visual poly-centeredness.
Many of Pelton’s works include a light-filled orb or egg. A cosmogonic symbol par excellence, it is found in many creation myths, symbolic of creativity, often splitting open to form a new world. Pelton’s eggs are transparent with light emanating from their centers. Two such works must have had great significance for the artist, because she repeats the first version, Light Center (1947 – 48), again at the end of her life in Light Center (1960 – 61). Both paintings feature a pale, almost white, transparent egg that glows from within, surrounded by darker blue forms. They present a portrait of the divine center of the artist’s personality. Similar forms can be found in many of Pelton’s works such as Wells of Jade (1931), Interval (1950), Focus (1951), and Departure (1952). It is as though she has captured divinity in this orb or egg, and it creates an energetic center, projecting these energies outward toward the viewer.
Sometimes this egg is enclosed in a semi-figurative abstraction as in Mother of Silence (1933), a painting the critic Ben Davis has insightfully compared to Nicholas Roerich’s Mother of the World (1924).5 The enthroned figure of the Magna Mater (the “Great Mother”) goes back to antiquity, and the image of the Sophia (“Wisdom”) was popular among Russian Symbolists like Aleksandr Blok and Valery Bryusov who were steeped in Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Florensky, in The Pillar and Ground of The Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters (1914), discussed the Sophia and her colored auras as they related to an icon by that name; he expanded this argument throughout his writings. In the introduction to Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art (published in English in 2002), a collection of Florensky’s commentaries on art, Wendy Salmond writes,
Florensky touched upon the image of the Mother as Platonic idea in the Meaning of Idealism (1914), where he discussed the existence of a four-dimensional perception of the world. According to Florensky, the philosophers of antiquity had come to this conclusion, as demonstrated by Plato’s allegory of the cave: ‘But ideas—the Mothers of everything existing—live in the depths, i.e. in the direction which in our three-dimensional world, is depth. Consequently any discourse about them, however distant, is a mere buzzing in our three dimensional ear.’ Florensky had formulated his conception of the Platonic ideal through his reading of Goethe’s Faust, in which the ‘dark corridor’ (at the end of which is the abyss where the Mothers stand) is the Platonic grotto: ‘Goddesses enthroned in solitude, sublime set in no place, still less in anytime…I mean the Mothers.’6
Pelton’s world was centered around a widowed mother and strong women like Mabel Dodge Luhan and Helena Roerich. Her Sophia, in the form of Mother of Silence, includes the feminine in her orb of divinity, and takes the image from the personal into the transpersonal. For Pelton, God includes the feminine. Standing in front of Pelton’s work, I felt as though her source of light flowed out and enveloped me. In this dark time, such a veneration of her work seemed appropriate along with a celebration of her ability to create works that acted as portals for the divine. Her art as a devotional practice speaks to us, even if it represents what the academy cannot embrace.
- Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), trans. Michael T.H. Sandler, p. 10, www.semantikon.com.
- George M. Young, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- Michael Zakian, Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature (Palm Springs: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1995), p. 53.
- Ibid, p. 2079
- Ben Davis, “Agnes Pelton Went to the Desert in Search of Solace. Her Paintings at the Whitney Show She Found Something Magical There,” ArtNet News, 13 March 2020, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/agnes-pelton-at-the-whitney-1802346
- Pavel Florensky, Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art, ed. Nicoletta Misler, trans. Wendy Salmond (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2002), p. 79.