Awakenings: An Untold Backstory of the Agnes Pelton Renaissance

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In 2019, the Phoenix Art Museum published Agnes Pelton, Desert Transcendentalist, a 220-page hardcover book about the illustrious paintings of Agnes Pelton (1881–1961). This impressive volume, which will accompany the traveling exhibition, contains magnificent full-page reproductions of her art and writings by scholars who took early steps to understand Pelton’s achievements and/or place them in context.

Agnes Pelton painting in Cathedral Canyon, 1939. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as seen in Jan Rindfleisch’s book “Staying Visible”.

The efforts to reclaim Pelton’s legacy go back further, however. The following untold backstory begins around 1979 when I was director of the Euphrat Gallery at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. To uncover information about several neglected artists, I approached the Archives of California Art at the Oakland Museum of California and started working with Michael Bell, then registrar/cataloger for the museum art department; George Neubert, then chief curator for art; and three graduate students from San José State University. In the research process, Bell showed me Agnes Pelton’s 1934 painting Orbits,[i] and said works like these would not be exhibited unless there was the story, the critical writings and documentation, to go with them. I was stunned. My motivation skyrocketed.

Agnes Pelton, Orbits. The Oakland Museum. Gift of Concours d’Antiques, Art Guild, The Oakland Museum Association. On view in the Phoenix Art Museum exhibition Desert Transcendentalist through September 8, 2019. The exhibition then travels to Santa Fe, New York and Palm Springs.

Agnes Pelton came to the forefront that day. Pelton was the first of the people we “discovered,” rediscovered, and/or wanted to focus attention on. We began the foresighted research project that grew into the exhibition and book Staying Visible: The Importance of Archives, along with multiple ongoing endeavors that continue to this day.

Margaret Stainer was one of the graduate students who worked on the Staying Visible project. She was as stunned as I was about the precarious situation of Pelton’s art and legacy and about the prospects of losing incredibly meaningful art and history:

To think one could paint Orbits in 1933 and many more later, and be virtually unknown makes me question the process of art history. How is it that a fine woman Painter, active for over half a century, who exhibited in the Armory Show and in major museums across the country, could be so obscured from view?[ii]

 Stainer immediately was captivated by the art of Agnes Pelton and threw herself headlong into the research project, which would last decades for her. Most importantly, the quest touched Stainer’s very being through the color, light, and spirituality emanating from the paintings.

Stainer wrote in her uniquely descriptive “Agnes Pelton” essay:[iii]

Orbits, indeed, presents color as light. Agnes Pelton uses what I have termed the Tyndall effect, altering the temperature of the blues to a silvery quality. Her edges sharpen and soften in minute increments: a Painter’s language: slow time/space flutter; faster activity in brush stroke modulations against ephemeral softness. Dashed linear configuring paths of starlights open—from a distance merge to a seeming line; color glows with quiet looking both from the Painter and the observers. There’s a sense of proto-Renaissance in Agnes Pelton … a decorative splendor she did not conceal; rich blues, pearlescents, abstract sub­jective images within a flamboyant silver frame, yet in a restraint characteristic of one who dwells sensately aware of moving light and color in the living landscape.

When I look out at night to the universe I no longer only sense nervous Vincent and spectral Lee Mullican but now also the quiet luminosity of Agnes Pelton. “Do you watch the stars these summer nights? Marvelous and indefinable emanations descend from them – something new—neither sound, sight, or smell. I only know that something wonderful goes on and that a faculty will sometime develop to apprehend it, if we preserve an open sensi­tiveness to it.”[iv]

 Stainer tells how Pelton went to Taos, New Mexico, and Honolulu, Hawaii, to seek “deeper resonances,” and ultimately left the New York City art scene for Cathedral City, California, then a small village in the Southern California desert. There she lived her last decades in solitude in small cabins chosen for the “quality of the spirit of the surrounding place,” and “endured strict financial parameters.” Pelton died in 1961.

We would never have discovered the significance of Pelton if we didn’t look to the archives, if someone hadn’t started to research and if others hadn’t jumped on board, if the pieces didn’t come together to form the project Staying Visible.

On the local level, we developed the Staying Visible project to look for underappreciated people, with Agnes Pelton our first find. Staying Visible became an exhibition and publication about these people. In retrospect, it not only had a formative effect upon all involved in the project, but influenced the renaissance of interest in Pelton.

Staying Visible: The Importance of Archives as Catalyst

We conducted research, exhibited the art, and published the book Staying Visible: The Importance of Archives in 1981 in conjunction with the Euphrat Gallery. Eleven artists were identified, researched and profiled in essays: Agnes Pelton, Beatrice Wood, Marjorie Eaton, Consuelo Cloos, Leila McDonald, Joyce Treiman, E.F. Evans, Therese May, Patricia Rodriguez, Mildred Howard, Carmen Lomas Garza. Researchers were mostly women with some very supportive men. We shared an understanding of women’s creative lives—often shaped, hampered, hammered, and redirected by gender-related social and/or financial impediments. All of this was lived experience for many of us. In coming decades, these constraints would be further described by art historian Linda Nochlin and made even more stark by art historian Griselda Pollock.

This was essentially an all-volunteer effort since the Euphrat Gallery had no budget for staff, let alone publications. As an upstart alternative organization, it struggled for survival. (One continuing threat was being turned into a computer lab. We persevered.) Times were very tight financially. The complex project was a labor of love—an intensive labor of love from start to finish. Those were days of typesetting, waxing the printed text, and pasting it on boards. Our first publication, it would not have been possible without artists Lucy Cain Sargeant, then with Sunset Magazine; Kim Bielejec Sanzo; and others who stepped up from different disciplines, including students.

Stainer’s “Agnes Pelton” essay came first. Second was Bielejec Sanzo’s “Beatrice Wood,” based on her interview with the artist, who lived the last half of her life in Ojai, California: “I have married a mountain.” She was like Pelton in ways—seeking peace, interested in Theosophy, “not a social person,” loving to work, always full of ideas.

Marjorie Eaton, right, with artist Patricia Rodriguez at the reception for Staying Visible. Photo by Helen Fleming.

The third essay was “Marjorie Eaton,” written with videographers Betty Estersohn and Dede Bartels. The Staying Visible book is included in the 2019 exhibition Marjorie Eaton: A Life in Pictures at the Taos Art Museum, curated by filmmaker Susan Kirk, her niece—another labor of love. All three documenters knew Eaton and lived on the San Francisco Peninsula. Archival research has also been critical in telling and recreating the story of Eaton, a younger contemporary of Pelton. The two amazing women took different paths, which may have crossed. Eaton—photographer, painter, and actress—had gone to Taos in 1928; Pelton absorbed Taos nine years earlier (1919) and kept in touch with arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. Eaton later painted with artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, acted on stage and screen for 40 years, and developed an unusual arts colony in Los Altos, California. In 1931, Eaton submitted art for the juried Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists at the Legion of Honor, an exhibition including paintings by invited New York artists. Eaton’s painting Blue Lakes had good company, including a Mary Cassatt, an Agnes Pelton, and Frida and Diego Rivera by “Senora Frieda Rivera” (Frida Kahlo) of Mexico City. Cassatt was well known. Pelton and Kahlo would only become widely recognized much later; Eaton even later. [The exhibition Marjorie Eaton: A Life in Pictures is on view at the Taos Art Museum through March 2020.]

 We learned a lot from the Staying Visible project. Pelton was an example, one of our discoveries. In addition to learning about many more artists, we gained insights into the importance of archives, the critical role small organizations and grassroots community play during and after an artist’s lifetime, the often-overlooked importance of a spiritual search for individual and communal growth, the value of finding commonality in meaning and purpose at the most basic interpersonal level. We learned how the art world works or doesn’t. Artists are often at the mercy of the art world system. Rather than paying attention to their contemporaries, who may be nearby, art historians and art history graduate students often prefer to research and focus their attention on dead people and/or those from perennially accepted art scenes.

What Happened Next?

Bielejec Sanzo and I expanded on the Staying Visible project and became involved with education regarding Pelton’s archival material and art, some of which became part of the Euphrat’s collection, and its preservation. I gave many of the archival project materials to Paul Karlstrom, West Coast Area Director at the Archives of American Art at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Stainer went on to become director of the Ohlone College Art Gallery in Fremont, California. We took the words of Michael Bell in Staying Visible to heart:

For me every scrap of paper must be saved. … Also, maintenance and care of archives is a job I’ve seen most people in the business ignore. To me, archival materials are artifacts every bit as much as a painting.

Fortunately, friends and supporters of Pelton, like Cornelia and Irving Sussman, along with Mary Wolseth of Palm Springs, and Helene Wolseth Barber of Los Altos and others, continued correspondence, saving and donating archival materials and art, confident and determined in their assessment of Pelton’s importance. In 1984, Cornelia Sussman sent me a letter about archival materials, starting a Euphrat collection, and Pelton’s place in the art world: “The thing about Pelton that makes her so uniquely American is that she had the mystical approach of her New England forbears, the Transcendentalists, and does not rely on paintings of children … to get recognition. Pelton really broke out of that traditional, customary role.”[v] That same year, Sussman sent me another note and the article “The Strokes of Genius” by Beth Coffelt, which hyped the importance of the Abstract Expressionists. Sussman clearly viewed “genius” and the system differently than Coffelt, and saw how we’re left with a loss. She noted the effect of the “glaring absence of women in this area of ‘abstract expressionists’—yet women were painting abstracts …” and again “the dramatic absence” of women. “If Agnes Pelton’s abstracts were included then there would also be the mind-stimulating aspect of the spiritual content of her work, I mean the ‘transcendentalist’ absence of violence, which is so in contrast with the others.”[vi] Sussman yet again wrote “about a swing of the pendulum, away from the ‘visceral’ celebration of the ‘unconsciousness’ and rejection of that part of us that thinks—not to ‘rationalism’!, but to that wholeness which we can only call ‘vision’!”[vii]

A newly discovered photo of Agnes Pelton, right, with artist friend Matille “Billie” Prigge Seaman, left. At the Wilson Ellis home in Cathedral City. From the Wilson Ellis Collection. Courtesy of the Cathedral City Historical Society.

Cornelia and her spouse Irving have an artistic, literary, and personal interest in the visibility and legacy of Pelton, their friend for many years in Cathedral City. The Sussmans have spent their lives writing, painting, creating, and teaching. (Among their many books of a spiritual nature was their 1962 book The Jews and Christ—Root and Flower, with a cover image connecting Jewish and Christian symbols, including a large rose, a symbol Pelton used.) Their 1982 book Spiritual Partners: Profiles in Creative Marriage (Crossroad Publishing Company) describes creative couples such as William and Catherine Blake (c. 1800), but the title can apply to the Sussmans themselves, who at one point even designed, built and ran their own marionette theatre in Cathedral City.

The Sussmans were very supportive when, in 1984, Bell and I worked together again to create the Euphrat exhibition Contemporary Surrealism: Classical, Visionary, and Social. It was dedicated to the memories of Agnes Pelton and collector Dr. Robert Stinnard.[viii]

In 1989, Stainer produced the exhibition Agnes Pelton at Ohlone College and an accompanying catalog with essays by Ed Garman and Irving Sussman, a major advancement made possible by her previous work with the Staying Visible project.

In 1995–1996, Michael Zakian, curator at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, produced Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, a traveling exhibition with stunning color catalog. As director of what had become the Euphrat Museum of Art, I loaned one of Pelton’s last works, Light Center (1960–1961), a gift from Irving and Cornelia Sussman.

In 2006, I loaned Light Center to the Orange County Museum of Art. It was featured in the gorgeous publication Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin, and Florence Miller Pierce. The publication also included Zakian’s piece “Agnes Pelton and Georgia O’Keeffe: The Window and the Wall.”

In time, Euphrat became a museum and the day came when I could work with architects on the design and construction of our new building. In 2009, the Euphrat exhibited Pelton’s art again. I was thrilled to include Orbits in the inaugural exhibition, Looking Back, Looking Ahead, a sign of future projects.

Pelton’s Due

 When I saw the book Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, I was so pleased to read the many essays. Two educators spotlighted an additional much-needed context with other movers/leaders in the arts and contemporary thought. Susan L. Aberth, Bard College, contributed “Women, Modern Art, and the Esoteric: Agnes Pelton in Context.” Erika Doss, University of Notre Dame, wrote about the spiritual quest that drove the paintings and key women who shaped new thought beyond scientific materialism, such as Emma Curtis Hopkins, Helena Blavatsky, and Katherine Tingley:

Pelton continued her spiritual seeking in California, looking to books, the night skies, and fellow believers for mystical and artistic insights. … Painting was a devotional practice for Pelton, a means of articulating her spiritual beliefs on modern art terms. … Light Center is an apt summary of Pelton’s focused devotion to the personally liberating terms of spiritual modernism.[ix]

From the growing access to Pelton’s art, correspondence, and contextual history, we see that she was not only seeking. She also received support from and contributed to the existence of a community of outliers, upstarts, and offshoots. At one time, these included the Transcendental Painting Group;[x] people like the Sussmans with their marionette theater; neighbors like Christina Lillian, described as the “California desert equivalent of Taos’ Mabel Dodge Luhan”;[xi] independent-minded women who opened arts gathering and exhibition spaces, and in 1950, the nonprofit co-op Desert Art Center in Cathedral City. Pelton co-founded the DAC with Mary R. Wolseth, one of the first to show Pelton paintings. Pelton’s art and legacy continue to give spirit and courage to people and upstart groups/organizations in the arts community seeking alternative paths today.

I was also very pleased to read the words of Gilbert Vicario, chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, who initiated the project: “A very special thank you to Margaret Stainer and her phenomenal early scholarship going back to the 1980s. I dedicate this exhibition catalog to her.”

Artist Anna Koster, who once worked with Georgia O’Keeffe and now teaches tapping into O’Keeffe’s creative style, sent me this Phoenix Art Museum wall text from the Pelton exhibition, drawn from Vicario’s introduction:

By the 1950s, Pelton slowed down due to failing health and on March 13, 1961, she passed away from liver cancer. Leaving no immediate heirs, her belongings were distributed to her cousins. In a letter written on July 28,1961, to Pelton’s cousin, Laura Gardin Fraser, Pelton’s friend and caretaker, Gerry Goodall, recounts: “I get sick every time I think of the abstraction Agnes gave to the Santa Barbara Gallery—worth many hundred dollars, and because the curator didn’t understand or like abstractions, put it in the White Elephant Sale for $40.00. Alice Kennedy saw it, and while she was out cashing a check to buy It—the price had been reduced to $15.00.”

Pelton’s slow re-emergence within the margins of American art began through critical and academic re-evaluations of her place in art history. In the 1980s, archival efforts aimed at establishing a baseline of primary research materials began to take shape. The Agnes Pelton papers at the Smithsonian Institution were assembled by Cornelia and Irving Sussman for a biography of Agnes Pelton. They were donated to the Archives by gallery director Jan Rindfleisch on behalf of the Sussmans, in 1984. The majority of her works were cataloged in a publication for an exhibition curated by the art historian Margaret Stainer in 1989, her first solo exhibition since 1955.

After Pelton died, her art was mostly out of sight for two decades. Artworks were later found in a garage and the aforementioned “junk shop” and White Elephant sale. Vicario acknowledges that the re-evaluation of her work was possible because of the early attention to conversations, mutual support as people found and reached out to each other, and construction of the archival record.[xii]

Agnes Pelton at home in Cathedral City with her homemade Christmas tree. Courtesy of Jan Rindfleisch, from her book Staying Visible.

It is nice to have that early Staying Visible team research and work acknowledged. Simultaneously, it is telling and important to see very clearly that superb art, great art, is not always recognized in its time or ever. Selling a Pelton artwork for $15? Not seeing the person or people, the talents or the visions or the contributions to new communities? It takes a lot of belief and stamina to stick with art and artists and community when the art world is preoccupied or going another direction. Kudos to those who do. Kudos to those whose work was the foundation of these exciting current-day efforts to bring Pelton’s influence and work to light. © 2019 Jan Rindfleisch

Jan Rindfleisch has focused on community building as an artist, educator, curator and author. From 1978 to 1985, she taught art and art history at De Anza College, and in 1979 began a 32-year journey as executive director/curator of Euphrat Museum of Art. She is the author of Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community, published in 2017 by Ginger Press. Her book Staying Visible, about Agnes Pelton and other intriguing artists, is available from Bolerium books: https://www.bolerium.com/pages/books/241348/jan-rindfleisch-ed/staying-visible-the-importance-of-archives-art-and-saved-stuff-of-eleven-20th-century-california

 Further Reading and Footnotes:

Jan Rindfleisch suggests related reading and groups to check out to learn more about how the discipline of art history manufactures and ignores certain artists and their art, how the art world and art history works or doesn’t:

Cotter, Holland. “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex: Holland Cotter Looks at Money in Art.” New York Times. (January 14, 2014)

Cotter, Holland. “The Guerilla Girls: Still Rattling Art World Cages.” New York Times. (August 5, 2015)

Emerging artists, stymied by the art world’s gender, racial, and other prejudices and barriers, construct new avenues for production, recognition, and importance. In the San Francisco Bay Area, artists have started organizations like Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA)—in 2008 AAWAA director Cynthia Tom created “A Place of Her Own,” an art-based program dedicated to helping women; and Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), an incubator of the arts to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation.

 

[i] George Neubert saw Orbits high up on a wall in a “hippie-run junk shop” in Venice, California, selling for $75. He found it “interesting and strange,” saw a museum label on the back and said, “I’ll give you $150,” buying it for the Oakland Museum permanent collection.

[ii] Stainer, Margaret. “Agnes Pelton,” in Staying Visible: The Importance of Archives: Art and “Saved Stuff” of Eleven 20th Century California Artists, Jan Rindfleisch, 1981. Foreword by Paul J. Karlstrom, West Coast Area Director, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. Pelton, Agnes. Letter to Raymond Jonson. September 9, 1933.

[v] Sussman, Cornelia. Correspondence with author. January 21, 1984.

[vi] Ibid. May 30, 1984.  Sussman enclosed Coffelt, Beth. “Strokes of Genius.” Dial. KCET/28 Los Angeles.  May 1984. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1984/05/08/TV-WorldNEWLNDustin-Hoffman-hosts-PBS-series-on-giants-of-American-modern-art/6278452836800/

[vii] Sussman, Cornelia. Correspondence with Kim Bielejec Sanzo. August 8, 1984.

[viii] For the exhibition, Michael Bell wrote and Euphrat printed an essay, “Surrealists on Surrealism: A Contemporary View,” a version of which by Michael S. Bell and Carol Law would later appear in Leonardo, The MIT Press, Vol. 17, Number 4, October 1984, pp. 247-252.

https://muse.jhu.edu/search?action=search&query=author:Michael%20S.%20Bell:null&query=content:surrealism:and&limit=subscription:n&limit=format:journal&limit=doctype:article&min=1&max=20

[ix] Doss, Erika. “Agnes Pelton’s Spiritual Modernism,” in Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. Phoenix Art Museum 2019. Erika Doss,

[x] In the late 1930s, the Transcendental Painting Group (members in New Mexico plus Pelton in Cathedral City, California) was concerned with “painting that finds its source in the creative imagination …” “The present activity … will serve to widen the horizons of art.” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/items/detail/transcendental-painting-group-statement-purpose-17590

[xi]  Japenga, Ann. “The Lost Colony of Sven Ska: Christina Lillian and the Cathedral City Artists.” California Desert Art, October 20, 2014. https://www.californiadesertart.com/the-lost-colony-of-sven-ska-christina-lillian-and-the-cathedral-city-artists/

[xii] Vicario, Gilbert. Introduction. Agnes Pelton, Desert Transcendentalist. Phoenix Art Museum. 2019, p.27. Also Zakian, Michael. “Agnes Pelton: Transcendental Symbolist,” in Desert Transcendentalist, p. 55.

4 comments for “Awakenings: An Untold Backstory of the Agnes Pelton Renaissance

  1. glenda
    August 22, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    love “painter’s language” in margaret stainer’s “agnes pelton” article.

  2. Katie Heap
    August 22, 2019 at 4:31 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful article on Agnes Pelton. She was a woman ahead of her time and sorely under estimated.

  3. Nyna Dolby
    August 23, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    Thank you for continuing to care about my cousin’s work. When going through things from my mother’s house after her death last summer, I found a box of slides dated September 1961 that included the photo of My mother’s great grandfather, Theodore Tilton, and more than a dozen other paintings by Agnes Pelton, many of which have been lost or were unknown. My mother spoke about there slides for decades, but we could never find them. Now they have been found! The next task is to find the lost paintings!!

  4. Michael S. Bell
    August 24, 2019 at 7:24 am

    When George Neubert brought Pelton’s “Orbits” back to the Oakland Museum from his trip to SoCal, I remember how overjoyed I was to, at long last, catalogue an acquisition for our holdings which was NOT any kind of gestural expressionism or funk or conceptual or minimalist anything. The painting was SO obviously masterfully done, technically and intellectually, in a manner that had been art historically forgotten and ignored – if not outright economically and culturally suppressed nationwide for fifty years. Great tribute is due to Rindfleisch and her army of volunteer archivists for making sure Agnes Pelton did not stay swept under the rug like Remedies Varo, Irving Norman and others had been. I am honored to have played a small role in that vital effort.

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