Wells of Jade
Agnes Pelton, 1931,
Oil on canvas, 34 x 20, 82.221.1948
Bequest of Raymond Jonson


Agnes Pelton (1881-1961)

Agnes Pelton, the eldest member of the TPG and honorary president of the AFTP, was born in 1881 in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents. After her father's death in 1890, she and her mother returned to Brooklyn, where her mother, who had earned a teaching certificate in piano from the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music, taught piano as well as French and German. Due to poor health as a young child, Pelton was tutored at home. She studied piano with her mother and also with Arthur Whiting, a recognized pianist. At age fourteen, Pelton added art classes to her curriculum at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and received her Certificate of Completion at the age of nineteen. She continued private art studies with two of her Pratt instructors, Arthur Wesley Dow and Hamilton Easter Field. In 1900 she studied landscape painting with Dow, assisting him in his summer school in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Dow emphasized structure, spirit, imagination, creation, and the nonnaturalistic use of color, a technique he taught using Japanese prints to demonstrate space relations and the appropriate use of light and dark masses. Dow believed that the Japanese and the Chinese had already found the essence of the painting ideals that Modernism was still striving to achieve. Dow's influence was critical to Pelton's development of abstractions based on interior, spiritual values.

In 1910 Pelton traveled to Italy for a year, where Field, also an enthusiast of oriental art, was residing. Under his guidance she studied Italian painters and daily life drawing at the British Academy in Rome. Liberated by her studies, in 1911 she began what she called "Imaginative Paintings," which were influenced by outdoor explorations of the effects of natural light, and continued through 1917. At a 1912 exhibition of her recent work at Field's studio in Ogunquit, Maine, Walt Kuhn saw her work. Kuhn, the organizer of the Armory Show of 1913, invited her to exhibit two of her "Imaginative Paintings," Vine Wood and Stone Age in that landmark exhibition.

In the winter of 1919, when she was visiting Taos, New Mexico, as a guest of Mabel Dodge Sterne (later Luhan), Pelton began to concentrate on realistic portraiture and landscape oil painting, as well as on pastels of Native Americans and desert landscapes. These were shown in a solo exhibition at the School of American Research in Santa Fe. Often Pelton returned to these themes throughout her career despite her advanced ideological painting concepts. Early Pelton biographer, Margaret Stainer, observed, "In the 1920s and '30s of American Modernism, we find a painter (Pelton) ideating 'pure abstractions' while painting representational landscapes."(1)

Until 1921 Pelton made New York City her home, but her need for solitude finally prompted her to find a rural environment, and she moved to the Hayground windmill, converted into a house on Long Island. There in the winter of 1926 in the quiet of her studio, she created her first original abstractions. It was also at this time that she began to use notebooks to record her most personal thoughts on life and spiritual issues.(2) From 1921 to 1932 Pelton traveled to Hawaii, New Hampshire, Beirut, Syria, Georgia, and Pasadena, finally relocating in Cathedral City outside of Palm Springs, California.

In March of 1930, Pelton met and began a close friendship with Rudhyar that lasted through the 1950s. Also in 1930 she began an intense interest in Agni Yoga, an esoteric offshoot of Theosophy. Her 1931 exhibition of twenty-one abstractions at the Argent Galleries in New York City and her 1933 "Santa Fe Fiesta" group exhibition with Jonson and Cady Wells at the Museum of New Mexico were both reviewed enthusiastically by Rudhyar. (Rudhyar had called her work to the attention of Jonson earlier in 1933, so that she was included in the exhibition. Thus began a long and warm friendship between Pelton and Jonson through correspondence.) When Pelton sent some of her canvases upon Jonson's request for the Fiesta exhibition and Jonson finally saw her work, his response was immediate and sincere:

. . . it is without doubt the finest and most beautiful work in the exhibition!!!! . . . During the next few days I shall spend a great deal of time with your work. Not that I do not know it now-I do but they wear well and I want to thrill and thrill and know you better through them. I am so happy and grateful to have found you.(3)
It was two more years before they actually met when Jonson and his wife, Vera, stopped in Cathedral City on their way to Los Angeles in 1935.
Pelton had gained comprehensive training and practice in becoming a thoroughly professional painter within the customs of the period. Her training in New York and New England, along with her studies in Italy and years of figure and landscape paintings of decorative subjects, all bestowed upon her a great versatility-that versatility that allowed her to create interactively between natural and abstract styles. Pelton did not abandon her early classical skills when she extended into abstractions: She allowed each of her skills and perceptions to blossom side by side.

From 1911 through 1936, Pelton had fourteen solo exhibitions and was included in twenty group exhibitions in the United States and abroad. Like Harris, Bisttram, and Jonson, Pelton was well informed and involved in the philosophical interests of her time. Pelton's reading list showed a wide breadth of interest with an emphasis on esoteric literature. She, too, had read Mme. Blavatsky's original publications on Theosophy as well as Roerich's 1929 Agni Yogi, which emphasized the fire symbol and may have influenced Pelton because she completed at least seven paintings with a fire theme: Frost and Fire, Fires of Spring, Firesounds, Mount of Flame, Chalice of Fire, White Fire, and Fires in Space. Later in 1941 when Rudhyar advised her to affirm her "life purpose," Pelton declared that she would "establish centers of radiation in my paintings."(4) It is likely that some of her symbolism was inspired and reinforced by her literary interests as well as by landscape.

By 1938 when the TPG was formed, Pelton was a mature, professional artist who had won for herself a special status in the field of abstraction and who had added further stature to the group. Because she did not return to New Mexico after 1919, Pelton's involvement in the TPG was always from a distance. In 1945 Jonson wrote to her of the dissolution of the group: "I fear it is finished. The members are scattered and I have a feeling the great interest that existed at the beginning has been lost."(5)

Although Pelton's art had received some recognition, she remained relatively obscure on the national level until the 1995-1996 tour of a retrospective exhibition of her work, entitled "Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature," which was curated by Michael Zakian. Pelton died(6) just before she turned eighty and was cremated, leaving this world through the element of fire. Throughout her painting career, she had continued to express the spiritual in art and the possibilities within human reach.

Folded Circle
Florence Miller Pierce, 1984
Resin on mirrored plexiglass on plywood, 68 x 43 x 3, 89.13.1
Purchased with funds from the NEA and Friends of Art

Florence Miller Pierce (b. 1918)

Florence Miller Pierce, the youngest member of the TPG, was born in Washington, D.C. Her interest in art emerged at an early age, but her formal training did not begin until she was enrolled in 1935 at the Studio School of the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery (since renamed the Phillips Collection). Considered by some to be the first museum of modern art in the United States, it featured works by artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Renoir, and was frequented by (Miller) Pierce as she expanded her artistic horizon. At the museum, she learned of Bisttram's Taos School of Art and soon traveled to New Mexico to study at the school for the three months of summer in 1936. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., she studied for six months at the Corcoran School of Art, during which period she became acquainted with artist Auriel Bessimer. Bessimer, who was deeply involved in Theosophy, and his wife had trained with English theosophist and philosopher Annie Besant who was a student of Mme. Blavatsky.(7) In 1937 when (Miller) Pierce returned to Taos for the winter, she enrolled in Bisttram's school and remained his student until 1939. While studying with Bisttram she met and later married Horace Towner.

Pierce received from Bisttram the same vigorous training in the quest for a spiritual art as had her husband. By 1938 she was painting strong abstract paintings of a single floral or shell-like motif suspended in a background of indeterminate space, using a palette of two or three contrasting hues. Morang described her work as projecting "the non-objective into a slightly mystical field of beautiful color relationships. It may be that certain symbols known to [me] have been misleading, but intentionally or not, these paintings do tend to evoke a thought pattern paralleling certain ideas of Mme. Blavatsky."(8) As Pierce's work evolved in 1939, Morang described it as "firmly placed planes and non-objective forms possessing very definite spacial relationships."(9) At that point in her artistic career, Pierce characterized her own work as having been inspired by an emotional motivation through which she was attempting "to delve beyond the bonds of matter."(10)

In 1940, hoping to promote H.T. Pierce's work and to secure financial backing, the Pierces moved for a brief period to New York City. In 1942, however, they decided to relocate to Los Angeles. Pierce today considers her paintings of the period between 1942 and 1946 to be most representative of her TPG work.(11) Among the works she completed in Los Angeles was Untitled, 1942, one of the first two drawings she created after leaving Taos and for which she used a free-hand technique as in autonomic drawing.(12) Pierce flourished in L.A. with her many friends (including her close friend, Gribbroek), and with her varied opportunities for new experiences such as with art making and acting in a film noir, Meshes in the Afternoon by film maker Maya Deren.

In 1949 when the Pierces returned to Santa Fe, they again attempted to survive economically by their artistic talent. H.T. Pierce's struggle with health problems and the couple's resulting financial issues took their toll, and they moved to the larger city of Albuquerque in late 1949. Pierce had been unable to pursue much painting in Santa Fe, and then the death of her husband in 1958 left her artistically unproductive for a period of time. When she was finally ready to resume working and realized that she was uninspired by the contemporary art she was seeing, Pierce began to search for new media with which to challenge herself. She worked in crafts from 1966 to 1969, creating sandblasted engravings on native stone ("garden stones"), carving doors, and designing a line of jewelry.

In the late 1960s Pierce began to create large wall sculptures related to her sandblasted wood and stone forms. She used foam to shape and contour them, then added texture, until the creations resembled rock formations of the New Mexican desert. In the 1970s she began to explore a technique of poured resin, when some of the material spilled onto a sheet of aluminum on the table and lay shimmering on the surface. Excited, she noticed its translucent quality and has been pursuing its possibilities ever since-first in monumental form and most recently in smaller form. Pierce pours resin over plexiglass that has been backed by a mirror and mounted on plywood to achieve a complex refracted quality of light. She uses the square, the circle, and the triangle, forms originally stressed by her early mentor, Emil Bisttram. "They sort of reincarnated themselves in my life all these years later. . . . This is about as pure 'Florence' as I can get. I was so pure, so naive then. I try to approach art again from that same mysterious source."(13)

Today as Pierce approaches her 79th year, her artistic success is catapulting. Her participation is courted by exhibition curators throughout the United States for her participation in exhibitions such as the prestigious "Still Working," which toured nationally, or "Independent Spirits: Women Artists of the American West, 1890-1945." She has won various awards, including the first celebrated Site Santa Fe Grant in 1995. In addition, Lucy Lippard, an internationally renowned art critic and activist, published a biographical essay of Pierce, In Touch with Light, in the spring of 1997. Pierce has maintained an expansive approach to life and art and seeks continual inspiration in Eastern thought as was expressed by Kandinsky and Mondrian and as was taught to her by Bisttram in her early Taos days.


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All text © Tiska Blankenship
All images © Collection of the Jonson Gallery
of the University of New Mexico Art Museums, Albuquerque