Agnes Pelton was born in 1881 to American parents in Germany. She and her family briefly lived in Switzerland before returning to the United States in 1888. Pelton graduated in 1900 from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and that same year worked as an assistant teacher at the Ipswich Summer School of Art in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In 1910, she spent a year studying life drawing at the British Academy of Arts in Rome, and by 1913, she exhibited in the Armory Show. Pelton first encountered the Southwest in 1919, when she visited the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico. She traveled the world extensively in the 1920s, when she also began creating abstract paintings of earth and light. By 1932, she settled in Cathedral City, California.
Because of her esoteric interests, Pelton was asked to join the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), a Santa Fe-based collective of artists formed in 1938 by artist Raymond Jonson. The group prioritized non-representational art and included artists such as Emil Bisttram, Ed Garman, Florence Miller Pierce, and Stuart Walker. Pelton was named the group’s honorary president and participated in select exhibitions before the TPG’s demise in 1941.
Through the years, Pelton produced fewer and fewer abstractions, instead painting desert landscapes to bring in needed income. By the 1950s, her health was failing, and in 1961, she died in Cathedral City.
Pelton’s distinctive paintings can be described as metaphysical landscapes rooted in the California desert. Her work is distinguished by biomorphic compositions of delicate veils, shimmering stars, and atmospheric horizon lines.
Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, the first exhibition on the little-known American painter in more than 24 years, was presented at Phoenix Art Museum from March 9, 2019 to September 8, 2019.