"The impression most people have of the history and meaning of 20th-century abstract painting basically involves a bunch of can-do postwar East Coast American dudes systematically stripping away subjective frills such as “content” to arrive at the monochromatic squares and precise geometric diagrams of Minimalism and Conceptualism, which allegedly refer to nothing outside themselves.
I’m not sure if any of the actual artists in question would subscribe to this version of history, but it has nonetheless seeped into the surface levels of our collective cultural consciousness, effectively burying a deeper and more complex story — a story less about real men optimizing the efficiency of the decoration industry and more about a bunch of middle-aged ladies wandering the desert in search of transcendental light.
However glossed over in the interests of secular technophilia, this alternate account of the significance of capital-A Abstraction keeps bubbling up, most elegantly in 2005’s 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin (possibly the best show ever hosted by the Santa Monica Museum of Art) but perhaps most emphatically in LACMA’s 1986 exhibit (and exhaustive catalog) The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. Aside from af Klint, one of my personal revelations from that show was local mystic Agnes Pelton, who spent her most productive years in Palm Springs–adjacent Cathedral City, painting luminous, symmetrical conflations of the natural and inner landscapes that teeter between geometric decoration and symbolic illustration; between sumptuous formal design and painting deployed as a tool for entering (and prompting) altered states of consciousness.
After experiencing the disproportionate presence manifested by Pelton’s Sandstorm (1932) in LACMA’s sprawling, cluttered millennial Made in California extravaganza — the modestly scaled but optically riveting oil painting actually caught and held my attention from across the vast museum lobby — I became a little obsessed. Pelton, born in 1881, had quintessentially beat-bohemian credentials. Though born into money, her maternal grandfather — journalist Theodore Tilton — had struck a major blow to American sexual Puritanism by suing his friend Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist but vocal opponent of the “Free Love” movement, for adultery with his wife. The resultant front-page trial did considerable damage to Beecher’s reputation (and the political credibility of overt sexual repression), and drove Tilton into exile in a Parisian boarding house, where he supported himself by writing poetry. That was the mother’s side. Pelton’s father, a globetrotting bipolar Louisiana sugar heir, OD’d on morphine when Agnes was 9."
Read the rest of Luminous Dames: Georgia, Agnes, Agnes, & Florence at OCMA here
See the show through Sept 6th at the Orange County Museum of Art.
Images all Agnes Pelton; top to bottom: White Fire (c. 1930), The Voice (1930), Light Center (1960-61), Sand Storm (1932)