Making the Desert Flower: An Alternative Look at Rarely Seen Agnes Pelton Paintings  

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Editor’s Note: For those wishing to go deeper into Peltonia we’re pleased to present this essay by Jan Rindfleisch. A former director of the Euphrat Museum of Art, Rindfleisch was involved in the earliest days of Pelton’s rediscovery. Here she collaborates with Pelton’s relative, Nyna Dolby, in exploring lesser-known portraits, landscapes and abstractions. –A.J.

Agnes Pelton, You Both Make the Desert Flower, 1953.

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,[1] 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.

In the same year, Ann Japenga published the essay “Awakenings: An Untold Backstory of the Agnes Pelton Renaissance” in California Desert Art.[2] It recounts years of research and collaboration that gave rise to the current reappraisal of and renewed interest in the art of Agnes Pelton, starting with discussion of the 1981 exhibition and book Staying Visible, and Margaret Stainer’s seminal article on Pelton.[3] 

This follow-up article looks closely at a group of rarely seen Pelton paintings[4] and incorporates insights from proponents of the artist’s work to provide the context to better understand the making of Pelton’s art, the building of an art community then and now, and the workings of art history. One of the people close to the story is floral designer Nyna Dolby—Pelton’s first cousin twice removed, who recently found old slides of Pelton’s art. Dolby here adds familial stories and insights.

 Additional interpretations and commentary relate to survival—of an idea, artwork, a creative spirit—in a difficult environment. The article also speaks of Pelton’s impact today and the need to cross artificial barriers within the art world, academic disciplines, and the world at large.

Family History

Pelton carried the weight of social judgments based on her family’s history of activism and scandals. She ostensibly sought illumination from this complex history when it came to confronting or negotiating ongoing social and political challenges. Dolby speaks about the larger-than-life figure of Pelton’s grandfather Theodore Tilton, whose portrait Pelton would always have with her. Tilton was a well-known journalist, poet, and abolitionist. Dolby recalls tales of him walking in Paris with his friend Frederick Douglass, a striking pair, both over six feet tall with shoulder length, dark curly hair shot with gray. “People would ask them if they were brothers and they thought it hysterically funny in light of the Civil War.” Yet a notorious sex scandal changed everything. Tilton accused his mentor and friend Henry Ward Beecher of adultery with Pelton’s grandmother Elizabeth Tilton, known as Libby Tilton. A teacher, editor, suffragist, abolitionist, and equal rights advocate, “Lib was cast into the role of an adulteress, a woman with a scarlet A.”

Theodore Tilton portrait by Kate Morgan. Family photos courtesy of Nyna Dolby.

Elizabeth Tilton with her sons, 1888-1889.

Nyna Dolby reflects on the past:

The family history is sprinkled throughout with devout Christians and spiritually attuned members. She [Pelton] was descended from the Proctors of Salem, Massachusetts who were accused and executed as witches … Some of the earliest Tiltons in the American colonies were devout and outspoken about the need for religious freedom, particularly the freedom from religious hypocrisy … [they] left New Amsterdam to help found Rhode Island. I feel Theodore Tilton’s lawsuit against Henry Ward Beecher [for adultery with Elizabeth Tilton] was another manifestation of the Tilton penchant for standing up for what is “right,” despite the high cost to the individual [and others].

Both [Theodore and Elizabeth] were suffragists. Did the [1875] lawsuit set back the cause? Did it take away Theodore’s voice? It is interesting that Theodore, along with Frederick Douglass, argued that they must go first with the men in terms of voting rights. The right for women to vote would come later. But afterwards Theodore seemed to lose interest. In the trial itself, Elizabeth couldn’t speak. She couldn’t take the stand.[5] There were no women on the jury.

In the court case, the “story” came out strongly; first Theodore’s, then Beecher’s. Elizabeth was bright, yet the male court reporter’s description of Elizabeth spoke [only] of her small size. Spectators fawned over the famous Beecher—notorious, the age of her father, he should have been ashamed.  Elizabeth didn’t slink off.

At the time women like suffragists and leaders Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke out against the hypocrisy, about the limited options women faced. Divorced women were ostracized.

In the end, Beecher would send Elizabeth money while she lived in the house in Brooklyn with her daughter Florence Pelton and granddaughter Agnes. Florence raised Agnes with unselfish devotion while caring for her aging mother and running the Pelton School of Music. Pelton’s father had psychological problems, which led to suicide—his father had been a plantation owner. Dolby says:

Elizabeth dies in 1897. Agnes is 16 or 17. Agnes admired the strength and independence of her mother and grandmother. They sent her to interesting places, allowed her to study and pursue her [areas of interest].

She [experienced] both sides of conflict. The family was always, “Don’t talk about it.” Agnes knew privilege, then lost it. After her mother died, she went to live by herself in a windmill [1921–1931] and paint.

Young Florence Tilton, mother of Agnes.

Agnes Pelton and her mother, Florence Tilton Pelton

Portrait Paintings

In 1905 Pelton visited her grandfather in Paris and brought back the large Tilton portrait painted by Kate Morgan. He died two years later. Pelton scholar Erika Doss[6] has sought to track down the current whereabouts of this portrait and reminded me that Pelton herself was once the subject of portraiture. Noted portrait photographer Alice Boughton took photographic portraits of Pelton around 1910–1912. Dolby inherited the images from her mother Carolyn Tilton Cunningham, and both have shared them with researchers.

Pelton’s own painting of portraits didn’t really become a focus till the early 1920s. In the preceding decade works as disparate as The Toilet (1913) and Labor (late 1910s) demonstrate the breadth of her concerns, subsequently downplayed by some critics. These paintings took in the whole body, often showing women in allegorical nature settings with faces, hands, and feet conveying emotion and intention.

Among Pelton’s early likenesses was Portrait of Tony Luhan (1921). According to Michael Zakian, it was based on a photograph taken when Pelton met Tony Luhan through arts patron Mabel Dodge on a Taos visit in 1919, and she later shipped the portrait to the couple as a wedding present. Pelton painted Luhan, Taos Pueblo, with a ceremonial drum, drumstick in hand. Dressed in shirt and tie with a tribal weaving over his shoulders, he appears pensive with a quiet determination.

Agnes Pelton, Child, 1924

Agnes Pelton, Sylvian, 1924. Photo: Peter A. Julley & Son, NYC

Pelton painted portraits while in Honolulu visiting second cousins who would help support her through much of her life. Dolby describes these relatives as “well-to-do” and “descended from missionaries [who arrived in 1837]. … [They] were involved with the prestigious royal Hawaiian Kamehameha Schools.” They could provide access to potential patrons and commissions. Dolby notes, “Her portraits received high praise in Hawaii for capturing the essence of the individuals painted. She was discovering that she could ‘see’ the heart of the things she painted.”

In the pastel portrait Child, a young Hawaiian girl of Japanese descent looks straight at us, confident, dressed well in traditional hand-sewn kimono (the white undergarment visible just the right amount by her collar and wrists), white tabis and child’s geta, sporting a huge white flower in her hair—the flower perhaps grown in Hawaii but not indigenous to the state. She holds a parasol like a scepter in one hand. It is a typical pose for a royal portrait, yet the girl looks much more relaxed and unassuming than the usual ruler in an official portrait. She stands out from a muted, almost floorless background. Bamboo, symbolic of good luck, long life, and strength, floats like a hieroglyph, with bifurcated growth that could be culturally symbolic and allude to her future. Rooted in Japanese culture, transplanted to Hawaii, she embodies at least two cultures.

Bright-eyed, her image is similar to Sylvian [aka Goldie Li],[7] a portrait of Sylvia Li, daughter of Dr. T. H. Kong and Dr. K. F. Li. Sylvia sits facing forward in front of a Chinese screen animated by the figures of 100 children (all boys), a traditional symbol of good luck. Her pose evokes symmetry and balance, a somewhat powerful stance for a young girl. In folded hands, she holds a large flower, which indicates the setting is in Hawaii. She wears a jade bangle bracelet on each wrist.

Sylvia wears clothing similar in style to what was worn by people of the merchant class in China and in Chinatown of that time, art handmade by women, including the embroidered hat. The symbols on her clothing would point in the direction of good fortune, blessing and happiness. Michael Zakian[8] describes how Pelton’s portraits captured the spirit of the people living in or visiting the resort community of Southampton, New York during her years there, and that at various junctures she “produced sensitive portraits of Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Hawaiians and Phillipinos [sic], often focusing on children.”

This openness toward gender, race, and cultural issues enabled her to observe and portray people with an unusual acknowledgment of past and present, accomplishments and potential. What kind of cultural and generational dialogs might have occurred about the settings and choice of clothing—what was hidden, discussed, challenged?

As Dolby and I consider paintings that have been out of the public eye—portraits, landscapes, and abstracts, we have pondered Pelton’s art choices, the real-life context of her paintings, then and now. Her story can find current resonance with the real-life barriers and trajectories of multiple pioneer women in the arts, such as artist Judy Chicago,[9] who also had to build their own supportive communities.

Landscape Paintings

Pelton captures a spirit, essence, or additional allusions in her landscapes as well, such as in a painting of the cabin in the San Jacinto Mountains near Cathedral City where she made her home late in life. (The artist moved to Cathedral City in the Coachella Valley in 1932.) The cabin was a subject Pelton painted multiple times. Here she chose angle and lighting to create a painting of her cabin getaway—a needed and coveted place apart—that is evenly and curiously divided by three strong vertical trees and nuanced by their shadows.

Agnes Pelton’s painting of her cabin near Idyllwild.

There is an untitled, unsigned Pelton landscape that I have seen—a canvas once rolled up in Dolby’s mother’s house. Dolby associates the painting of an oak tree and a girl with a flower waiting for two adults with a family story of a prescient child who said when visiting an unfamiliar park, “Over the hill, there is a swing,” which turned out to be true. The oak’s massive tree trunk is topped by a maze of light and leaves, abundant and alive but obscuring branches, suggesting missing links between past and present, let alone future. Pasadena gallery owner Michael Kelley says he has a companion painting of a young girl in white dress reaching out for one of many large white flowers massed in surrounding foliage. Titled Wild Farm, Madison, Connecticut, the girl portrayed is Pelton’s cousin Dorothy Tilton.

Agnes Pelton, Untitled Landscape painted between 1910 and 1920.

Agnes Pelton, Wild Farm, Madison, Connecticut (Madison was the PO stop for Killingworth.)

In September 2019,[10] Ann Japenga’s reporting suggested that both paintings were inspired by a Killingworth, Connecticut farm Pelton purchased secretly in 1903 and kept many decades—a place with ancient stone walls, dark woods and witch stories, such as mother-daughter witches Goody Wee and Betty Wee.

Dolby researches the time and place of her untitled landscape further:

[Japenga’s] article includes a photo of the farmhouse from 15 years ago when it was painted red. In looking through … family photos, I found a photo of Agnes standing in front of that building. Japenga thinks the early dark imaginative–type paintings were inspired by the farm. That would put my tree painting within that time frame and likely set in that geography.[11] It’s before my grandfather moved west to San Francisco around 1923. There are girl cousins in the photos too. Vine Wood, shown in the Armory Show of 1913, would have been done at the farm, so likely sometime between 1910 and 1920.

Agnes Pelton at the Killingworth farm in Connecticut. A dramatic image in flowing skirt, not practical farm fare. Dolby says it’s a snapshot, blurry, the first image (Japenga: “first one ever!”) found placing Pelton at the Killingworth farm.

Realistic portraits, flower paintings and landscapes were Pelton’s “bread and butter,” and she managed to make them her own with symbolic touches, that hinted and revealed what couldn’t be spoken. However, Pelton favored her highly imaginative, spiritually sensitive abstracts, painted as early as the mid-1920s, as her “own things.” In 1929, abstracts Faith, Sleep, and Ecstasy were exhibited in Pasadena alongside Pelton flower paintings and portraits.


Pelton had a spiritual side to her, and ultimately sought an unusual independent and solitary lifestyle. She found one path that incorporated the inner life force of her portraits with the external life forces of her landscapes to create her groundbreaking abstracts—full of content that crosses disciplines, contrary to art-world fashion and bias.

Doss’s recent essay on Pelton’s spiritual modernism provides a background of female-centric spirituality, the concept of a Holy Mother Spirit, and Pelton’s orientation “framed by female agency and independence”—all personally liberating.[12]

Agnes Pelton, Caves of Mind, 1929

Caves of Mind (1929) is in stark contrast to her portraits and landscapes. Pelton’s abstract painting is brimming with three light-filled arches. Luminous glowing shapes, rounded expansive forms create a visionary, spiritual background for darker and complex recumbent organic shapes at the bottom. The arches remind me of a photo of Pelton in which arched windows filled with light contrast with a darkened interior. Caves of mind and spirit expand inward and outward.

Agnes Pelton, Chalice. This version may have been censored by an owner who cropped it in framing, Nyna Dolby’s slide taken around 1961.

In Chalice, an oil painting painted in Cathedral City, California, the central dominant image is a faintly pink chalice coursing with visceral, blood-red arteries that suggests multiple symbolic meanings. The cup’s oval structure and even the blood vessels could allude to a head and neck overturned to receive or to be more receptive to that which is beyond the mundane, or the slightly uterine cup might represent the body as vessel. Alone in a dusky sky, the chalice hovers just above the nearby support of a triangular pedestal.  The golden pedestal penetrates but also floats freely inside a centered well in the mound in the landscape below. While image and title both reference the spiritual and religious aspects of chalice, wine, and blood, Pelton’s outdoor setting suggests nature’s unifying connection between the internal and external aspects of the self. Along the horizon and below the vessel, a line of white curvilinear figures facing out from the center become part of a nearly symmetrical canvas.

The framed version shown above, photographed shortly after Pelton’s death, may have been someone’s censorship of the pubis-like mound. It could be that Chalice was deemed too sensual and suggestive of female anatomy, which is curious, since many religious paintings displayed in churches and museums have a sensual aspect.

Agnes Pelton, Chalice

Notably, one sine-wave line at the bottom has its own mind. As an artist with a background in physics and space science, I enjoy Pelton’s science and mathematical allusions—orbits, wave forms, infinity symbol, growth curves—in their natural habitat, as opposed to a blackboard or computer screen.  With such imagery, Pelton constructed an art-and-science bridge that wouldn’t be crossed for decades. For years, the fallback representation of science and technology was geometrical—at its extreme, the intricate tessellations of Escher.

Pelton revisited the chalice motif in Star Gazer (1929). However, in Star Gazer a small star appears above in a dark blue sky that is more immense and a stronger contrast to the simplified golden-fire sunset hills at the bottom, and a glowing bud grows into a delicate turquoise chalice. In her 1934 Even Song, a chalice appears with more stars. The head-and-neck allusions continue, with a sense of one’s mind, body, and spirit being beautifully connected with the earth and the universe.  Zakian[13] and others, as well as Pelton herself, have spoken of layered meanings. While it retains elements of landscape, Even Song’s focus on the sky and abstract flowing shapes signify the spiritual.

Agnes Pelton, Rose and Palm, 1931

Rose and Palm, a 1931 oil on canvas, again presents a plethora of symbolism and layers of meaning open to conjecture from carnal to sublime. It’s seemingly an abstract landscape, portrait, and still life at the same time. Pelton had used a central rose figure before in Incarnation (1929). Here, in an almost symmetrical composition, she juxtaposes the rose with the palm, joining natural and religious symbols from east and west. Other compositional and symbolic elements used before include stage-setting drapes and two white vessels. The latter frame negative space to create the optical illusion of a face formed by the signature motif of tall arched shapes, perhaps drawn from the arches in her 1929 Caves of Mind (that would later morph into the more animated 1931 Wells of Jade). In the lower quadrant once again there is a sensual landscape of mountains and water, this time with a little star centered afloat in the deep-blue water at the very bottom. The rose and palm are small, floating in the warm-to-cool gradient of the ethereal skyscape with a human aspect. Pelton frames the imagery with curtains, which suggest a theatre stage (performance) or a window (perspective). The scene differs from more transcendent desert scenes that are freed of this frame, open to the heavens—one which is experienced, as opposed to being observed.

Dolby offered her insights on family and Pelton’s spiritual life. Of the 1943 Awakening that Pelton dedicated to her father, Dolby says:

His body [lies] at the bottom like a mummy, a lost soul, no respect. The [golden trumpet flower refers to the] last trumpet described in First Corinthians 15:52. I think she was thinking about her belief that her father would rise again to eternal life, even though he died a likely suicide [morphine overdose], something that traditional beliefs of the day thought condemned a person to hell.

“The abstraction Future (1941) features an archway, reminiscent of the archway into Cathedral City, that leads to multicolored squares floating in the sky. It portrays a biblical verse about heaven, ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions/rooms’.” Dolby sees Pelton’s spiritual quest, including interest in various movements and writings, such as those of Krishnamurti, as very parallel to Christianity at the time. “Pelton envisioned an unseen world, the mystery of life, what makes something living.”

Dolby considers The Ray (1931) as truth and light descending from above to a flower, and as a precursor to her Light Center paintings. The latter have been widely discussed, in part because one is a powerful and unusual end-of-life painting.

Pelton’s abstract Light Center was in progress at the time of her death in 1961, with similarities to her earlier Light Center (1947–1948). A vertical shaft of light connects the earthly with the great beyond. A hand supports the light-filled ovate form. In the later version, various small, curvilinear lines undulate, loop and overlap within the perimeter of the oval, and the egg shape is even more luminous. In a personal and visionary ascension, it rises to meet a sinuous cloudscape clustered at the top. But lightly superimposed, quickly drawn charcoal markings suggest the possibility of editing out the clouds to leave the focus on the glorious oval.

Agnes Pelton, Light Center, 1960-1961

Pelton’s complex, emotive, inspiring abstractions are layered with meanings. Her accomplishments are even more astonishing when it’s remembered that her artistic, personal and spiritual quest persisted despite, or perhaps in response to, the strictures of the social, intellectual and cultural norms reflected in a mainstream art world that placed limits on what one could acceptably say, do, and think.


The motivations that propelled Pelton’s trajectory include seeking release from the confines of nihilist modernism and the New York art scene; the quest for a spiritual home open to an unconventional personal lifestyle and the freedoms and wonders of the universe; and the more practical demands of dealing with financial strictures that worsened as the years wore on. Like many artists, she had to make connections that allowed her to survive on her own terms.

Realizing her vision required finding her own space, as well as like or receptive minds, and building a new sort of community that was both supportive and stimulating. She chose less affluent Cathedral City, rather than Taos, Santa Fe, or Palm Springs. Pelton fostered a sense of belonging with kindred spirits who also found a creative locus in the Coachella Valley. She collaborated as needed with others to enhance her own creative freedom to do art, at the same time giving others these opportunities as well by hosting small art events in her home. Although she was an introvert, she was involved with the Women’s Club, helped establish the Desert Art Center, interacted with “the lost colony of Sven Ska” as Ann Japenga describes, and chaired the Transcendental Painting Group. Dolby summarizes, “She was very private—didn’t drive—had strong friendships.”

One of these supportive friendships was with Cornelia and Irving Sussman. They helped Pelton during her life and kept telling her story and preserving her art, writing, and photos after she died. Friendships and support from people like the Sussmans, often in different disciplines and off the beaten art-world path, allow artistic survival and encourage new ideas and growth for individuals and groups to flourish.

Pelton’s painting You Both Make the Desert Flower, signed and dated May 31, 1953 on the front, is an abstract symbolic portrait of the Sussmans. It has many similarities to her Idyll (1952), but Pelton added orbs to the sky: one dark circle, one iridescent circle with crossed, compass-like lines. As in Idyll, translucent orange and blue mound-like forms rise above the desert landscape—one taller, one broader—but now they emanate from an abstract, nebular mirage. The ascendant mounds suggest an energy trying to rise, grow and emerge to form new creative space below.

Agnes Pelton, You Both Make the Desert Flower, 1953.

This Sussman double portrait also symbolizes relationships with an unusual time-and-space dynamic. The two parabolic mounds might represent the couple’s energy. They intersect along different axes, tying in with the x-y diagram in the sky. Perhaps that alludes to the different perspectives or abilities of each contributing to the whole equation. Their overlap is incomplete, allowing each to exist outside the other’s influence and to maintain their own true color. Together the mounds create a protective, sheltering space for each other that is also open to the entrance and exit of others.

Staying Visible

The limits that Pelton resisted continued into the 1980s and beyond, long after the 1960s had supposedly liberated us. In 1981, these issues were addressed by the exhibition, publication and research of the collaborative group behind the Staying Visible project inspired by Agnes Pelton. We realized early on that Pelton’s lifework in art had been marginalized like that of many artists whose creations probed concepts outside the art-world system.

Staying Visible, 1981. Contents page.

Our respect for Pelton’s determined iconoclasm continued to influence our exhibitions in the incipient Euphrat Museum of Art. In the early 1980s, a student asked me why there was never any religious art in a modern art gallery. Reflecting upon the lack of a conducive atmosphere for creative growth for people with questing spirit like Pelton as well as for many people of diverse ideas and backgrounds, we created the 1982 Euphrat exhibition and book Art, Religion, Spirituality.

Similarly, in 1984 we created the Euphrat exhibition and book Faces, with motivations echoing those of Pelton around 1920, to bring the spirit of a person to life so we can be motivated to hear what they have to say and be spurred to interact with each other. At the time, artist/educator Fred Martin advised Euphrat visitors “[the artworks] speak to one another; it is for us to listen in at their conversations …” This recommendation is reminiscent of the close relationship Pelton wanted people to have with her work, often holding open house teas to exhibit paintings.

Again in 1984 we created the Euphrat’s challenging exhibition Contemporary Surrealism: Classical, Visionary, and Social ,[14] and a publication initiated by Michael Bell pointing to the need for a renewed understanding of surrealism, dedicated to the memories of Agnes Pelton and Dr. Robert Stinnard.

These Euphrat Museum exhibitions and publications celebrated art and ideas that were dismissed due to art-world trends and blind spots and art-industry norms. They also brought on our own survival problems as a small arts organization building an unusual college/community identity.[15]

Detail from 4/26/84 letter from Cornelia Sussman [to the author]

In communications and correspondence, Cornelia Sussman understood our struggles and provided encouragement to our Staying Visible group as we challenged the status quo of the art and academic world, just as she and Irving must have done with Pelton and others in Cathedral City—what Pelton might call “Making the Desert Flower.”

Our group embraced Sussman’s vision for a future with excellent visibility, strong scholarship, and expanded contextual understanding for Pelton and her work. The combination of the above seminal interdisciplinary Euphrat exhibitions and publications, the shared vision for Pelton and her art, and the community involvement and community board motivated the Sussmans and others to entrust Pelton artwork to our fledgling Euphrat collection. As Staying Visible proponents, we recognize and honor all their gifts of art, their understanding, and their encouragement.

Nyna Dolby talking with Pelton biographer Michael Zakian and Gilbert Vicario, curator of the exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist.

Nyna Dolby with New Mexico Museum of Art curator Merry Scully. Photos by Mary Lou Cunningham White.

Pelton’s value today is interdisciplinary. The innovative painter met challenges from art-world, academic, cultural, political, and economic systems. Her story and her art reach far beyond the art world, and hold riches for interdisciplinary research along with personal contemplation. The grassroots research, reporting, and organizational work of Japenga and Dolby, enhanced by scholars Doss and Zakian, and the work of countless others, are part of a continuum of people who ferret out lost history, acknowledge others, and put puzzle pieces together to tell the story. As we advocate for our shared vision, we honor Agnes Pelton’s determination to “make the desert flower.” Thanks to her and everyone involved, it is indeed blooming. © Jan Rindfleisch 2019

Contributors to the research, writing, and discussions included Nyna Dolby and Ann Japenga, Erika Doss and Michael Zakian, Nancy Hom and Ann Sherman, along with others such as Sharon Chinen, Connie Young Yu, and the Honorable LaDoris Hazzard Cordell (ret.), who added insights in specific areas. 

 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. Her new book, Creative Power: The Art and Activism of Ruth Tunstall Grant, was published by Ginger Press. Her 1981 book Staying Visible, about Agnes Pelton and other intriguing artists, is available from Bolerium books:


[1] Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona; New Mexico Museum of Art, New Mexico; Whitney Museum of Art, New York    (March 13–June 28, 2020); Palm Springs Art Museum, California (August 1–November 29, 2020)

[2] Japenga’s publication and research has brought far more discoveries and understanding of context, including the research of Dolby. The most recent article by an anonymous guest author shows and tells of Voyage, the companion artwork to the Oakland Museum’s Orbits, both bought at low cost in Venice, California in the late 1970s. The author recalled buying Voyage from two women who ran a vintage shop in Venice called In One Era.

[3] For a basic understanding of the initial project, see introductory essay and commentaries along with the following essay: 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.

[4] These paintings were either in a family home, long hidden away; previously thought lost; or just in storage.

[5] The interspousal immunity rule (later abolished) prohibited both spouses from testifying, but the judge made an exception for Theodore, provided he did not testify about any “confidential communications” with his wife. Truth was never attained. There were eight male attorneys in all, a male judge and male jurors with a verdict of hung jury—nine for not guilty, three for guilty of adultery—a vindication for Beecher since there was no retrial.

[6] Doss, Erika. “Agnes Pelton’s Spiritual Modernism,” in Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. Phoenix Art Museum, 2019. Erika Doss has an upcoming publication about spirituality and art, including Pelton.

[7] Photograph in Dolby collection, whereabouts of painting unknown.

[8] Zakian, Michael. Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature. Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1995. p. 40.

[9] Chicago’s community building has involved acknowledging pioneer women in the arts. Inspired by Pelton, Chicago has recently called attention to Pelton’s art (her “sense of light and inner light”) as part of persistent resistance to the erasure of women’s accomplishments.  Or Jori Finkel’s The Art That Inspires Artists, 2019.

[10] Japenga, Ann. “Lost Farm: The Rediscovered Homestead of Agnes Pelton.” California Desert Art, September 7, 2019.

[11] A current neighbor to the farm named Pete (last name withheld for privacy) says the old oak tree was standing there (though dead) on the Killingworth farm into the 1960s but had fallen by the time his father bought the property. Pete wrote to Dolby: “That painting of the oak tree is almost IDENTICAL to a photo in the old, missing photo album … I believe I know exactly where it was … [on] Agnes’ map … It was huge!  It must have been at least 5 feet in diameter … [from] the forest as it was before the Europeans arrived here.”

[12] See footnote 6.

[13] Zakian, Michael. Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature. Palm Springs: Palm Spring Desert Museum, 1995, p.79.

[14] Contemporary Surrealism: Classical, Visionary, and Social, 1984, with accompanying essay “Surrealists on Surrealism: A Contemporary View,” by Michael S. Bell. Bell describes a time after the 1940s when the contributions of many surrealists were not understood or well acknowledged.

[15] The California Desert Art article “Awakenings: An Untold Backstory of the Agnes Pelton Renaissance” details more about Agnes Pelton, art world politics and how value in art is determined. See Note 2 for link.


9 comments for “Making the Desert Flower: An Alternative Look at Rarely Seen Agnes Pelton Paintings  

  1. Ann — Thank you for this amazing series that digs deep into the mystery of Agnes Pelton. I hope you publish a collection of your essays on the artist. I spent 5 hours at the Phoenix show taking in the 60 paintings therein, and I only left because the museum was closing. It is a staggering body of work.
    I wrote a piece that will be in the forthcoming El Palacio that looks at how familial and personal trauma might have formed Pelton’s work (I am a psychologist who works with creatives). It is speculative, of course, examining one facet that invited further exploration.

  2. Hi Nicole, Thanks for your note. I was planning to post a news item soon on your (and William Dailey’s) amazing gift to the New Mexico Museum of Art–eight paintings by members of the Transcendental Painting Group. (For those unfamiliar with the group–Agnes was a member.) I love the El Palacio magazine and will be on the lookout for your essay on the psychology of Pelton’s work.

  3. a worthy thoughtful article! thank you for opening the doors, dear ann. “all art began as religion” – camille paglia

  4. Ann Japenga, Nyna Dolby, and Jan Rindfleisch: Thank you for this highly revelatory and fascinating article, which illustrates just how deep the well goes with Agnes Pelton Clearly, there are still significant discoveries being made about her life and work, and more to come.

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