Pioneer of 20th-Century American Abstraction 

text and photos courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

Opening this Saturday, March 9 at Phoenix Art Museum, the exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist explores the work of a relatively unknown artist who was a pioneer of 20th-century American abstraction. 

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Oil on canvas. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation. 

Agnes Pelton, Mother of Silence, 1933. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. 

Agnes Pelton, Sand Storm, 1932. Oil on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville,Arkansas, 2012.504. Photography by Edward C. Robison III. 

Born to American parents in Stuttgart, Germany, Pelton and her family briefly lived in Basel, Switzerland, before returning to the United States in 1888. A graduate of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913, yet her early abstractions didn’t begin until the mid-1920s in New York. 

Intentionally moving away from the mainstream arts community, Pelton eventually settled in Cathedral City, California, in 1932. Newspaper journalists sometimes compared her with Georgia O’Keeffe, who was six years her junior, as both artists studied with Arthur Wesley Dow in Massachusetts, and both shared an affinity toward the landscapes of the Southwest. 

Pelton painted conventional desert landscapes and portraits to make a living, but she continued to hone her symbolic abstractions throughout her career. It was her abstract studies of earth and light and biomorphic. compositions of delicate veils, shimmering stars, and atmospheric horizon lines that would eventually distinguish her body of work. Relatively unknown during her lifetime, Pelton and her work have remained underrepresented within the field of American art until today.

“We are very excited to present Agnes Pelton to our guests,” said Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at Phoenix Art Museum. “Almost nine decades since Agnes settled in Cathedral City, we are still laying the groundwork for a greater understanding of her contribution to American Modernism and abstraction, while embracing an appreciation of her work by a new generation of contemporary artists.” 

In addition to exploring the artist’s contributions to American Modernism, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist also examines her practice against a broader, international framework of artists who worked with spiritual and esoteric abstraction, including the occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Hilma af Klint (1862–1944). 

“The story of Agnes Pelton is one that exemplifies the need for our current revisionist model of art history,” said Erika Doss, PhD, professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. “She was a single woman who didn’t have strong connections to the elite art markets of her time, yet throughout her life, she maintained a commitment to honing her abstract paintings, making a significant contribution to the evolution of American modernist painting.” 

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist is accompanied by a fully illustrated exhibition catalogue edited by Vicario, the organizing curator of the exhibition. The publication includes contributions from Elizabeth Armstrong, former Director, Palm Springs Museum of Art; Michael Zakian, PhD, Director, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University; Susan Aberth, PhD, Associate Professor of Art History, and Coordinator, Theology, Bard College; and Erika Doss, PhD, Professor, Department of American Studies, University of Notre Dame. 

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist 

March 9 – September 8

Phoenix Art Museum