AGNES PELTON (1881-1961)
AGNES PELTON (1881-1961)
AGNES PELTON (1881-1961)
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AGNES PELTON (1881-1961)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from a Private Collector
AGNES PELTON (1881-1961)

The Fountains

AGNES PELTON (1881-1961)
The Fountains
signed and dated 'Agnes Pelton 1926' (lower right); signed again and titled twice 'The Fountains Agnes Pelton The Fountains' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
36 1/8 x 32 in. (91.8 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted in 1926.
Ralph and Beatrice French, La Jolla, acquired directly from the artist, 1958
Martin Diamond Fine Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1985
A. L. Hopkins, "Story Of Well Known Artist," Keyport Weekly, 17 December 1926, n.p.
"Review," New York City Post, 24 April 1926, n.p. (illustrated).
Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1977, p. 99.
American Women Artists 1830-1930, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1987, no. 80.
G. Vicario, “Out of the Margins: The Reemergence of Agnes Pelton,” PhxArt, April-July 2019, p. 18.
C. Wyma, "Divine Reality," Artforum, vol. 58, no. 7, March 2020, n.p. (illustrated).
J. Felsenthal, "Agnes Pelton Finally Gets Her Due With a Major New Show at the Whitney," Vogue, 10 March 2020, digital.
A. McCoy, "Agnes Pelton," The Brooklyn Rail, May 2020, p. 79.
M. Coates, The Pelton Papers, Berkeley, 2020, p. 229.
C. Knight, "The glorious mysteries of Agnes Pelton's desert paintings, on view in Palm Springs," Los Angeles Times, 14 April 2021, digital.
G. Vicario, Agnes Pelton, Munich, 2022, pp. 10, 18, 52 and 60, pl. 1 (illustrated).
Brooklyn Museum, NAWP&S Show, April-May 1926.
New York, The Whitney Galleries, 12th Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by the Members of the Club, February-March 1927, n.p., no. 152.
New York, Montross Gallery, Abstractions by Agnes Pelton, November 1929, no. 1 (illustrated on the cover).
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 125th Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, January-March 1930, p. 39, no. 270.
New York, Argent Galleries, Agnes Pelton, February-March 1931, n.p., no. 12.
Washington, D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum; San Diego Museum of Art and Dallas, Southern Methodist University, Meadows Museum, American Women Artists, 1830-1930, April 1987-April 1988, n.p., no. 80 (illustrated).
Fremont, Ohlone College Art Gallery, Agnes Pelton, October-November 1989.
Palm Springs Desert Museum; Montclair Art Museum; Water Mill, Parrish Art Museum; Logan, Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University; Malibu, Frederick R. Weisman Museum, Pepperdine University and Oakland Museum, Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, February 1995-October 1996, pp. 47-49 (illustrated).
Costa Mesa, Orange County Museum of Art, Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin, and Florence Miller Pierce, May-September 2009, pp. 50 and 54, fig. 27 (illustrated).
Phoenix Art Museum; Santa Fe, New Mexico Museum of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art and Palm Springs Art Museum, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, March 2019-September 2021, pp. 26, 45, 72-73 and 201 (illustrated).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Further details
We thank Mr. Michael Kelley for the information he has kindly provided on this work.

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

A pioneering figure of 20th Century painting, Agnes Pelton translated her fascination with symbolism and the metaphysical world into daring abstractions which continue to resonate and inspire nearly a century later. Long overlooked following her death in 1961, Pelton had three one-woman shows in Manhattan from 1929-1932—including an exhibition featuring the present work on its catalogue cover—before moving to Cathedral City, California, a small town near Palm Springs, in 1932. She exhibited her work at prominent West Coast institutions including the San Diego Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Crocker Art Museum. In 2020, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Phoenix Art Museum mounted Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist in which the present work was notably included. A seminal example of her oeuvre and one of her first-ever abstractions, The Fountains (1926) is Pelton’s artistic breakthrough—embodying her singular mode of painting for which she is most celebrated. Painted in her picturesque home and studio inside the historic Hayground Windmill in Watermill, Long Island, the work has been widely exhibited, including important shows in 1926 demonstrating its lasting importance within Pelton's oeuvre.

Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1881 to American parents, Pelton moved in 1888 to Brooklyn, New York, where she was raised by her mother who operated a music school out of their home. She enrolled in the Pratt Institute from 1895-1900 and studied under the notable arts educator Arthur Wesley Dow, who eventually also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. After her graduation Pelton continued to explore the art world through travel and study. She studied at the British Academy of Arts in Rome in 1910, exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, and in 1919 traveled to the burgeoning art colony of Taos, New Mexico at the request of notable arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. The Armory Show of 1913 was especially important, as it introduced Modern Art to America. Pelton exhibited two “Imaginative Paintings" in the show. Pelton also traveled to a range of domestic and international locales in the 1920s including South Pasadena, Hawaii, Syria, and the Mediterranean. In 1921, she settled in the historical Hayground Windmill in Water Mill, New York, where she would stay for the next 11 years. She then relocated to Cathedral City, California to live in relative seclusion from the art world and its tastemakers for the remainder of her career.

Pelton began her career in the 1910s with what she called her “Imaginative Paintings”—arcadian figurative symbolic compositions reminiscent of American artist A.B. Davies and Thomas Wilmer Dewing. Galvanized by a growing interest in astrology and theosophical texts, in 1925 Pelton dramatically shifted toward pure abstraction in The Ray Serene (1925)—a composition directly inspired by the spiritual works of Wassily Kandinsky. A year later, she undertook her first original abstractions: the present work The Fountains, Being and Meadowlark’s Song, Winter. Pelton most likely conceived of The Fountains in 1923 as drawings from her notebooks are dated around this time, however it was not until 1926 that she felt ready to create the painting.

Regarding this profound shift in 1926, Pelton wrote: “The tendency toward the beauty and direct expression of abstract form in color was discernable at intervals from the beginning of my imaginative works, and finally, during the winter of 1926, in the quiet of my windmill studio, I began to work on some pure abstractions. Light is the keynote of these pictures. Not as it plays on objects in the natural world, but through the space and forms, seen on the inner field of vision.” (as quoted Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2021, p. 64). Coupled with a developing interest in Agni Yoga, a sect promoted by the artist Nicholas Roerich, Pelton continued to explore these abstractions fervently in the late 1920s and early 1930s, creating some of her most accomplished compositions.

The Fountains is a lyrical, abstract portrayal of water suspended in air and the soft pastel colors that Pelton employs create a mystical, otherworldly glow to the painting. Art historian, Michael Zakian, stated of the painting “In The Fountains (1926) Pelton further developed the theme of currents by exploring water circulation. Her compositional study, originally called The Fountains - Love, makes clear her intent to use water as a metaphor for spiritual union. The large central element was an upright 'think spray' — an emanation of pure thought — surrounded by 'light' and an 'opal mist.' Drawing implicitly on the work of the American philosopher William James, who identified mind with a 'stream of thought,' Pelton regarded flowing waters as a metaphor for mental activity. She saw the human ability to think as a gift of nature, like a flowing spring.” He continues “The Fountains depicts the way water surges upward, momentarily defying gravity. Pelton was interested in water's mysterious elasticity, its ability to take the form of its surroundings. This protean quality was for her a metaphor for selflessness. Water also became a model in her search for personal freedom. Because it is fluid and formless, it stands for all processes of transformation. Alchemy saw water as the ultimate medium of change. It also symbolized psychic growth. By embracing various images of freely flowing water, Pelton hoped to eliminate a certain rigidity basic to her personality." (M. Zakian, Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature, Palm Springs, 1995, pp. 47 and 49).

Pelton exhibited her first abstractions in her first solo exhibition at the Montross Gallery in 1929, in which The Fountains was featured on cover of its exhibition pamphlet. Pelton wrote of the group in the catalogue, “These pictures are like little windows, opening to the view of a region not yet much visited consciously or by intention—an inner realm, rather than an outer landscape…In so far as this creative activity is present, a concept appears to organize itself into what might be called a symbolic vision.” (“Abstractions in Color,” Exhibition of Paintings: Abstractions by Agnes Pelton, Montross Gallery, 1929, n.p.) Regarding The Fountains specifically, Pelton later authored the following poem explaining the work:

“ Two balanced forces
Rising from a pool.
To play in harmony
Like water—a fountain music

The golden disc of day irradiating
Fires and lights their movement

Opposite, yet side by side
Felicity mounts upward
To fall, and rise again

And from this confluence
Descends a sphere
Lucent as the dawn
Of a new day”

The poetic lyricism associated with Pelton’s abstractions places her in an organic dialogue with the famed Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, whose mystical large-scale paintings are considered some of the first abstractions in Western art history. Michael Duncan explains, “Like the paintings of Hilma af Klint, Pelton’s work imbues form with metaphysical meaning—but Pelton’s ties to nature offer a transcendental experience beyond metaphysical theories, one based on the activated experience of earth, sky, light.” ("Agnes Pelton: 1881-1961," Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2021, p. 72).

Pelton began to incorporate cosmic and desert imagery into her practice after she relocated to California, but the abstraction she developed on the East Coast remained a guiding principle for the remainder of her career. As Pelton later reflected, “Abstract Paintings should be a new experience in seeing, without reference to what has been familiar to us in the paintings of the past. According to the degree of our receptivity, they communicate to us through color, as music reaches to us in sound. These paintings are seldom representations of forms in nature, except in a symbolic sense: they are records of inner visual experiences, bringing light out of darkness, or serenity out of oppression, by the sensitive use of a wide range of color, and of forms which either in movement or at rest, maintain their relationships in space.” (c. 1930-40, Archives of American Art, Box 1, Folder 18).

In the 1930s, Pelton joined a likeminded group of artists interested in theosophical spirituality in The Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). Founded by Raymond Jonson in 1938 in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, the group aimed to produce art which furthered spirituality and enlightenment. Original members alongside Pelton included Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram, Florence Miller Pierce, Lawren Harris, Robert Gribbeok, William Lumpkins, Horace Tower Pierce, Stuart Walker and eventually Ed Garman. Although not based in New Mexico, Pelton was avidly suppored by Jonson, and she was elected an honorary president in 1938 in absentia.

In a favorable review of her 1931 exhibition at Argent Gallery, a critic for the American Art News proclaimed: “Miss Pelton is a child of the new age. She is harbinger of the future for other poets.” (as quoted in Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, exh. cat., Phoenix Art Museum, 2022, p. 23). Indeed, her work continues to resonate with post war artists such as Agnes Martin, Mary Corse and Loie Hollowell. A foremother of 20th Century abstraction, Agnes Pelton employed an extraordinary combination of spirituality and abstraction in her most accomplished compositions including The Fountains.

We thank Mr. Michael Kelley for the information he has kindly provided on this work.

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