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Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist

Agnes Pelton, Awakening (Memory of Father), 1943, oil on canvas. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase, 2005 (2005.27.1) Photo by Blair Clark.

On exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Art through January 5, 2020, the traveling exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist surveys the works of an artist who made significant contributions within twentieth-century abstraction. Her work remains largely unknown despite being compared to Georgia O’Keeffe for her landscape paintings and studying under Arthur Wesley Dow. The exhibition contextualizes Pelton with her peers in the American modernist abstraction movement currently being studied as part of the canon of art history.

The more than forty works on view reflect Pelton’s interests in enigmatic practices such as numerology and Agnes Yogi. Her abstract paintings balance conceptual forms with objects that are haloed and wreathed by unseen sources. Considered a pioneering force in the genre, Pelton’s paintings animate the unseen energy that blooms in the desert. These crystalline studies did not appeal to audiences during Pelton’s life, but set her work at the forefront of modern scholarship about American abstraction of the early 1900s.

Included in this major traveling exhibition of Pelton’s work is a painting from the New Mexico Museum of Art’s collection, Awakening (Memory of Father). The work, from 1943, was added to the Museum of Art collection in 2005 and was recently written about by artist Judy Chicago in the book It Speaks to Me: Art that Inspires Artists.

“Awakening is a prized, and popular, work from our collection. It will be a real treat for visitors to see our painting in the context of so many other artworks by the artist,” said Merry Scully, senior curator of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Born in 1881, Pelton graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1906 and began painting abstractions in the mid-1920s in New York. In 1938, she immersed herself further into symbolic representations and became a founding member of the Transcendental Painting Group, an organization of New Mexican artists focusing on spiritual works.

The New Mexico Museum of Art is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, May through October; and closed Mondays from November through April. Admission is $7 for New Mexico residents, $12 for non-residents, and free for children 16 and under. The first Sunday of each month is free for New Mexico residents with ID. Wednesdays are free for New Mexico resident seniors (60+) with ID.

Coming Nov. 25–Aug. 2020: Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood explores how twentieth century artists in the Southwest — most from outside the region — were inspired by the Penitentes, a uniquely New Mexican phenomenon.

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