A several decade long career as an artist brought Agnes Pelton neither fame nor fortune. There is a story about a collector in Santa Barbara, Calif., who bought two of her abstract paintings. He ended up unloading them at a garage sale. Initial asking price was $40. They sold for $5. Today, Pelton is the subject of a one-woman exhibit that occupies the entire eighth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
Agnes Pelton was born in Germany to American parents in 1881. She grew up in Brooklyn in the 1890’s. Her father died of a morphine overdose when she was 10 and her mother became a recluse. Agnes was home schooled, largely due to illnesses.
Pelton studied art at Pratt Institute where she had the same instructor who would later work with Georgia O’Keeffe. She lived a modest existence, largely off the grid. From 1921 to 1932 she lived in an abandoned windmill on Long Island. After that she moved to Cathedral City in the desert area of southeastern California.
Pelton made a living painting conventional landscapes and portraits. But it is her abstract works that have posthumously raised her profile in the art world. Pelton was a believer in numerology, astrology and faith healing and a follower of Agni Yoga. Her paintings are an expression of her spirituality.
When the Phoenix Museum of Art organized the exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist it was the first time her works had been exhibited since a 1995 exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum. It is the Phoenix Museum exhibit that is currently at the Whitney.
Pelton’s paintings are soft and dreamy with a sort of implied movement. Many of her works were painted at a time when other artists were focused on depression, class struggle and war. Today, living in a pandemic America rife with violence and political dishonesty, a stroll among the works of Agnes Pelton can’t help but chill you out a little.