The Voice
Agnes Pelton, 1930 Oil on canvas, 26 x 21, 82.221.1947, Bequest of Raymond Jonson,
Collection of the Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico Art Museums, Albuquerque.

Essay · Gallery · Biographies

Agnes Pelton and Florence Miller Pierce:
The Two Women Artists in The Transcendental Painting Group
(1938-1945)

by Tiska Blankenship, 1998
Jonson Gallery Curator, University of New Mexico Art Museums


Introduction

In the mid-1930s painters working in New Mexico began discussions that led to the formation of the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). Following several informal meetings, a group of artists(1) who shared an interest in abstract and non-objective art formally organized the TPG in Taos on June 10, 1938. In terms of experience and years, Agnes Pelton was the eldest artist included in the group, and at nineteen as a student artist, Florence Miller Pierce was the youngest.

To a great extent the TPG members organized to defend and validate abstract and non-objective art which was regarded as suspect by the public and was, therefore, generally rejected from exhibitions. The TPG believed that if the attitudes of the public could be effectively altered, then exhibitions of their work would be accepted. As the discussion of expectations expanded among the membership, the TPG developed a mission with a deeper philosophical intention. Once concepts and titles were agreed upon, a manifesto was published in 1938 to promote TPG ideals and art.

The TPG manifesto stated that their purpose was "to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual." The manifesto included the statement that "the work does not concern itself with political, economic, or other social problems." Arranging exhibitions of transcendental work that would "serve to widen the horizon of art" became the focus of the TPG's activity.

One of the most significant accomplishments of the TPG was to bring the term transcendental to prominence within the semantic dialogue. The TPG's application of the term to their art advanced the meaning assumed by the terms abstraction or non-objective. The term transcendental allowed expansion of the ideas already behind each artist's work and established the concept of the sublime, a word that conveyed high spiritual and intellectual worth. Because a transcendental painting represented an ideal condition or one of expanded awareness and acceptance, the TPG believed that it held the potential to serve as a powerful icon for enlightened cultural values.

Difficult and perhaps seemingly obscure terms such as spiritual, transcendental, quality, or ideal were part of the transcendental dialogue. At the time, the group was aware of the difficulty involved in defining these terms and made a genuine effort to explain the TPG's ideals through lectures, newspaper articles, and the group's manifesto. These terms generated confusion, fear, or dismissal. For the TPG, spiritual was meant to convey something other than religious meaning--rather, something that was reached from a process of refining integrity, skill, knowledge, and experience into an artistic statement conveying openness and acceptance--and something that was ultimately inspiring for the human condition. The term transcendental was tied to quality, as was the concept of ideal, because no work lacking in quality could represent an ideal, and therefore could not approach the spiritual.

Mount of Flame
Agnes Pelton, 1932, Oil on canvas, 24 x 20, 82.221.1950,
Bequest of Raymond Jonson

Pelton described her work on December 7, 1930 in the following manner:

These pictures are conceptions of light - the essence of fire, not as we see it in the material world but as the radiance of the inner being. They are produced from that state of consciousness from which the creative impulse is a unified expression and solidified to the presentation of the material forms of the natural world.

On another occasion she expressed "The element in my work that appeals is a conscious triumph or growth of light from darkness in a spiritual sense.... The urge to surmount materialism in some of these [other] movements has driven them away from emotional reactions." (Date unknown) On January 12, 1957 Pelton wrote,

Though Art lends itself willingly to illustration of mental concepts, and presentation of human and natural forms, art within its own field can contribute to the apprehension of spiritual life, and the expansion of a deeper vision. Of all the arts, painting is the foremost in the use of color, having within its scope the possibility of the direct communication of its vibratory life and essential element in light.

Raymond Jonson used a transcendental painting by Pierce to establish his point on quality in a class lecture(2), calling

attention to the quality and the resulting sensation of mystery lying within the painted areas...aliveness to such an extent that the work possesses life...that every element contained within the work contributes toward establishing a unity...a vitality of rightness between and within the areas....

First Form #1
Florence Miller Pierce, 1944, Oil on canvas, 26 x 36.5, 89.13.3
Purchased with funds from the NEA and The Friends of Art

Pierce was transitioning from a young art student into a professional artist at the time of the group's activity. Consequently at the time of the TPG, she was not as formed in articulating the basis of her images as was Pelton. However, the quality of her work and its unique imagery during the period is indisputable. In 1991 she described her philosophical underpinnings as

a personification of a personality...like having little spheres of private spiritual, intellectual, maybe partly sexual...that surround every artist...and it's this part here that we're either anxious to tell everybody about or maybe a little defensive [about].... Zen, to [find] the original self or original mind.... It's kind of like what I'm after, to get as purely into my mind.... It's not in the square. It is from the square. I am plunging into, really, the center of the square.... The purest thing I know how to do right now...these squares.... I open up the space. There's...a little window in there...they're like little mandalas.(3)

 


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

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