Agnes Pelton’s Meditation Chamber at The Whitney

Agnes Pelton’s 1929 Star Gazer, suggesting rebirth in a desert landscape. Private collection.

Have you wanted to enter a light-filled, spiritual place and be transported to another realm? Get a ticket to the Whitney Museum of American Art enter the Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, on view through November 1.

You’ll experience six decades of abstract paintings whose shapes fly, hover, and float above desert mountains and in deep space – another dimension that feels light, otherworldly, and pure. Take a look at our Flickr album.

She began developing her style in the early years of the 20th century when abstraction, the symbolic meaning of color, and spiritualism were being explored in the New York art world, and she took to heart what she read in Kandinsky’s influential 1910 treatise, On the Spiritual in Art.

1926 Meadowlark’s Song, Winter. Courtesy: Maurine St. Gaudens.

The exhibition opens with a figurative work in the style for which Agnes was first known to the New York art scene –  an ethereal artistic woman inhabiting a dreamy, semi-abstract, soft-colored landscape. Her work earned her inclusion in New York’s landmark 1913 Armory Show – the exhibition that introduced “modernism” to America – in Gallery D alongside other young American artists experimenting with bold color and abstraction.

But the Whitney exhibition (originally mounted by the Phoenix Art Museum) is actually focused on the next phase of Alice’s abstract work, which reflects her embrace of spiritualism, experience with New Mexico’s desert landscapes, and interaction with creative, like-minded thinkers in and around Taos in the Twenties. Although she often accepted commissions for portraits or landscapes throughout her life, she considered the abstract works the core of her artistic journey.

1934 Orbits. Courtesy: Oakland Museum.

Like her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes found inspiration in the Southwest desert. However, Agnes had a different artistic approach, using color, natural form, and abstract shapes to lead viewers into another realm of consciousness that exists beyond the natural world.

Agnes’s journals and notebooks are filled with lessons from spiritual teachers and with sketches for paintings with notes on what the different forms and colors mean.

Visitors to the Whitney show move slowly, taking time to digest each canvas and to appreciate the artist’s care and thought. Swooping shapes, illuminated portals, and clusters of abstracted forms take center stage, posing questions, and leading you into another dimension.

1947 Light Center, evoking one’s ability to transform. Private collection.

The center gallery features work done after Agnes moved to her desert home near Palm Springs in the Thirties, where she was transfixed by the quality of desert light.  She loved incorporating water and light into her works – two natural phenomenon that symbolize transformation and change.

The dark walls of the center gallery enhance the glowing nature of her spiritual canvases. Her technique is masterful, with layers of translucent washes applied to give the white ovals nearly a three-dimensional feel, like looking into the void of an Anish Kapoor sculpture, except that Agnes achieves the effect with simply a canvas.

Here’s a talk recorded last year at the Phoenix Art Museum in which Notre Dame professor Erika Doss explains Agnes Pelton’s spirituality and puts her work in the context of the modernist movement:

Reopening News

 The Whitney has just announced that the large outdoor public project on the Hudson waterfront by David Hammons will open this fall.  The other big announcement is that a one-year Biennial postponement will give artists and curators more time to view and prepare work that was put on hold by the shutdown. Read more about upcoming shows here.

At 7:00pm on October 20, Whitney curator Barbara Haskell will take your questions about Agnes in an online “Ask a Curator” event. Check our Virtual Museum Event page for all of the museum’s nearly daily virtual tours, talks, and walks on this and other exhibitions.

If you’re in New York, you can visit the Whitney five days each week, Thursday through Monday, with extended hours every Friday until 9:00pm. All exhibition spaces are open, including the magnificent collection show, which features mini-shows by Jacob Lawrence, Hopper, and Calder. Here’s our previous post about this fantastic exhibition.

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