Florence Miller Pierce, 1942, Oil on canvas, 10 x 14, 95.18.1, Gift of the artist
At the time of the group's formation, the foundations of the world's societies were still quivering from the destruction of World War I in 1918. Beginning in 1929 an eleven-year downward economic slump declined into the Great Depression. In Europe, the rise of Fascism and Naziism, the Spanish Civil War, and the tremors coming from Communist Russia put increased pressure on the political systems of the world. Turning inward, America retreated into a conservative mode that was disinterested and sometimes hostile toward creative investigation. Thus, the TPG painters were greeted with shock and consternation. It was one thing to tolerate one abstractionist maverick (Raymond Jonson) in New Mexico; it was yet another to be confronted with a group of these individualists who organized with common goals and an agenda.
As pioneers of art, the TPG painters sought to gain acceptance of their art by the largely antagonistic New Mexican public, thereby connecting themselves with similar issues held by a larger community of modern artists in the United States and the world. The TPG members shared a background and an interest both in the theories promoted by artists Kandinsky and Mondrian, and in the tenets of Theosophy(4), Zen Buddhism(5), Dynamic Symmetry(6), and other philosophical and occult concepts. Although the stylistic approach of each TPG artist varied, their idealism and integrity of purpose were unified.
The members of the TPG were concerned that their interests might be confused with those of mid-19th century American Transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They made a great effort to clarify that even if the TPG agreed with philosophical positions of other systems, they did not paint images to illustrate any philosophy. Instead, they drew upon many philosophies and ideals, incorporating them into their painting as each painter fulfilled his or her own strategy.
Whatever one may think about the esoteric tendencies of Theosophy, through artists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, the movement played a crucial role in the emergence of nonrepresentational art. Pelton, along with other TPG members Jonson, Lawren Harris, and Emil Bisttram belonged to a generation with one foot in the 19th century-a generation of artists strongly receptive to the ideals promoted by the theosophic movement. Their maturity and experience, along with Rudhyar's, provided the power in the formation of the TPG. Their lives overlapped those of Mondrian and Kupka who were dedicated theosophists, as well as that of Kandinsky who saw great value in the principles of Theosophy.
Stuart Walker and William Lumpkins instead developed their interest in nonrepresentational form from less specific influences, although Lumpkins held a significant interest in Zen-Buddhism during his teenage years. Along with Florence Miller Pierce, Horace Towner Pierce and Robert Gribbroek came to the group through Bisttram's Taos School of Art (1936-1939). Introducing them to the theories of Theosophy and Kandinsky, Bisttram encouraged them to read Kandinsky's The Art of Spiritual Harmony. Ed Garman, the last to join the TPG, had found his interest in non-objective work largely through the philosophical study of Plato and Kandinsky.
Modernist pioneers were artists rather than philosophers, regardless of the extent to which they embraced Theosophy and similar teachings. The TPG determined to make art that was formless in an objective sense, yet powerful in an undefined space. The ideals of these philosophies validated each artist's internal values and were incorporated into their art by transforming and converting abstract and non-objective images beyond the sources of subject matter, symbolism, or personal style. In this manner, the work achieved the transcendental, and a spiritual quality could be perceived.
As World War II became imminent, the group's momentum was interrupted, and members traveled in many directions to fulfill various war-time commitments. Several enrolled in the industrial work force supporting the war effort, and others became members of the fighting forces. The Pierces ended up on the west coast where Horace was drafted into the U.S. armed forces and Florence involved herself in creative activities and flourished, though few paintings were accomplished. Only Jonson and Pelton were able to continue their life's work. By 1941 the group was forever fractured. Although most chroniclers of the TPG place its ending in 1941, for Jonson, who remained "the keeper of the flame," that was not its finalization.
Jonson wrote Pelton regarding the annual TPG dues on June 2, 1947,
No one is paying up except you and Garman. I am desirous of keeping the thing going but because of my own terrific schedule it has been impossible to carry on correspondence and work for exhibitions. I guess the only thing to do is let the money pile up and when there is enough then make an effort toward an exhibition.
Jonson held Pelton in the highest regard and he turned to her to express his final disappointment. On June 25th, 1945, he wrote to her "I fear [that the TPG] is finished. The members are scattered and I have a feeling the great interest that existed at the beginning has been lost. I am out of touch with all of them except Bisttram and you." And finally on July 10, 1945, Jonson wrote to Pelton, "I guess this winds up the TPG and believe me I am sorry. Some of the material in connection with the activity we carried out forms a rather interesting record. I shall keep it for future generations to ponder over!" One cannot help but wonder what might have been possible if only the war had not begun.
All text © Tiska Blankenship
All images © Collection of the Jonson Gallery
of the University of New Mexico Art Museums, Albuquerque