Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pelton, Agnes Lawrence

The Primal Wing
oil on canvas
60.96 cm x 63.5 cm
The San Diego Museum of Art, CA, USA (Fair use)

Agnes Lawrence Pelton (1881-1961), born in Stuttgart, Germany to American parents, was a pioneering American modernist who spent most of her childhood in Switzerland and France. After her father's death in 1890, she and her mother returned to Brooklyn, where her mother, who had earned a teaching certificate in piano from the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music, taught piano. Due to poor health as a young child, she was tutored at home. She studied piano with her mother and also with Arthur Whiting, a recognized pianist.

At age 19, she graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York and later studied with Arthur Dow. Dow emphasized structure, spirit, imagination, creation, and the non-naturalistic use of color, a technique he taught using Japanese prints to demonstrate space relations and the appropriate use of light and dark masses. Dow believed that the Japanese had already found the essence of the painting ideals that Modernism was still striving to achieve. Dow's influence was critical to her development of abstractions based on interior, spiritual values.

Her early work was mostly portraits and representational subjects, but in 1925 she began to change to abstraction. Arthur Dow's influence led to her "Imaginative Paintings" of ethereal seeming figures expressing the moods of nature and the dichotomies between contemplation and animal impulse. She began visiting the Southwest in the 1920s and became one of the leading voices of radical abstraction in New Mexico. She was part of a group of ten New Mexico painters who called themselves the Transcendental Painting Group, dedicated to radical abstraction in the 1930s when realism prevailed. In 1931, she moved to California where she settled in Cathedral City and spent the rest of her career painting the West, especially surreal scenes of blooming desert. She died just before she turned eighty and was cremated, leaving this world through the element of fire. Throughout her painting career, she had continued to express the spiritual in art and the possibilities within human reach.