by David M. Roth
They weren’t the first to form an art colony in New Mexico. (That honor goes to Mabel Dodge Luhan and her coterie of artists and thinkers.) Nor were they the first Americans to paint abstractly. Or, the first to expand on the ideas of Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian — Europeans who, at the beginning of the 20thcentury, gave stateside painters a glimpse of how they could break the stranglehold of regionalism and Social Realism. Yet despite its relative obscurity, the short-lived (1938-1941) Transcendental Painting Group stands as a significant and underrecognized chapter in the history of American painting. It gets a rare and spectacular airing in Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, on view at the Crocker Art Museum through November 20.
The show serves as a perfect rejoinder to the 2018 exhibition of Swedish occultist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) at the Guggenheim Museum and a fitting supplement to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) groundbreaking 1987 exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, the largest show ever devoted to art of this sort. For this, we can thank independent curator Michael Duncan, who, with generous assistance from the Crocker, rescued this touring exhibition from pandemic oblivion and contributed highly informative biographies for each of the exhibition’s 11 artists.
Formed by Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram and later joined by Agnes Pelton, Lawren Harris, William Lumpkins, Stuart Walker, Florence Miller, Robert Gribbroek, Ed Garman, Horace Towner Pierce and the composer Dane Rudhyar, the TPG coalesced more around philosophical precepts than a shared stylistic approach. In a masterful and deeply researched catalog essay, Scott Shields, the Crocker’s associate director and chief curator, tells how each TPG member, according to their needs, drew from a smorgasbord of ideas, chief among them Theosophy, as well as Zen Buddhism and Native American beliefs, and various artistic practices including Symbolism, Constructivism, Orphism and Precisionism. Their goal was to take painting beyond what Rudhyar, the group’s theorist and promotional spokesperson, called the “dolled-up doodling” of most abstract artists who, he felt, were blinded by “inchoate spiritual longings” and “confused ‘cosmic consciousness.” Effective art, he argued, sprung not from art-for-art’s sake formalism but from spiritual necessity and drew from three categories of experience: “an individual’s inner awareness of life; traditions expressed by a particular culture; and a universal collective unconscious of nature or geometric symbolism related to inner and outer shared human experiences.” That orientation, he maintained, enabled collective understanding across cultures – unlike the dream-based work of the Surrealists, which, he said, remained hermetic and therefore out of reach for most viewers. By contrast, the “Transcendental Movement,” Rudhyar opined, had the capacity “to arouse men and women out of their bondage to sense-patterns and dead intellectual attitudes; to stir in each and all the creative spark…ever-onward along the spiral of ever-progressing, ever more transcendent living.”
To understand why such high-flown language held sway within segments of the American avant-garde, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. between the wars confronted many of the same problems facing us today: unprecedented loss of life, widespread inequality, social unrest and the threat of fascism at home and abroad. To quell those anxieties, many turned to mysticism — as did the TPG artists, who, in wide-open spaces filled with visible remnants of ancient civilizations, summoned otherworldly visions as a healing, transformational force. Their efforts, as Shields points out, differed in one important way from those of earlier transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. Where the writers sought divinity in nature, the TPG artists looked within. They also looked to music, finding synesthesia-like connections between sight and sound, out of which they attempted to activate emotions the way music does: by bypassing the intellect. Success, therefore, rested on the ability of visual art to skirt real-world referents, an exceedingly difficult task given the human brain’s propensity for wresting familiar associations from almost any form, no matter how abstract.
The degree to which Another World meets these stringent criteria varies considerably. The strongest examples come from the TPG’s co-founders, Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) and Emil Bisttram (1895-1976), founder of the Taos School of Art. Their works, along with Agnes Pelton’s, consume roughly half the space allotted to the show, and rightly so. Jonson’s work galvanizes attention with interlocking geometric shapes rendered in bold colors that evoke realms beyond visible reality. The impulse Jonson traced to a 1922 visit to New Mexico where, in the desert, he felt as if he’d undergone “a chemical change.” Looking at Oil No. 2 (1942), an image that resembles colliding bombs with sparks radiating from the point of impact, I felt as if I were experiencing a similar epiphany. Other works, like Oil No, 11, made a year earlier, involve architecture. In this, lines shooting out from the vertices of a skyscraper read as concentrated energies, recalling the oft-quoted statement attributed to Plato, “God geometrizes.” Accordingly, architecture figures prominently in Another World. We see it most prominently in City Forces (1932), a painting whose smokestacks and
exhaust vents implicate Chicago, Jonson’s home before he relocated to Santa Fe in 1924. A profoundly atmospheric picture, it reveals, on close examination, acres of distant factories in a haze of brown industrial grime. Were those structures (which include a length of razor wire spanning the width of the picture) not penetrated by beams of light bearing no functional relationship to the forms depicted, you could take City Forcesfor a Precisionist painting, reminiscent of things Charles Demuth or Joseph Stella made during the same period. As such, it’s an outlier in relation to everything else in the show, memorable for its mix of gritty realism and allusions to spiritual awakening in an unlikely setting.
For the most part, recognizable referents are notably absent from Another World. Agnes Pelton’s works are among the few exceptions. Her luminescent, Symbolist (and sometimes Surrealist-tinged) paintings employ natural forms (birds, plants, waves, mountains) that call to mind Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, René Magritte and Georgia O’Keeffe – O’Keeffe especially. Pelton (1881-1961) was one of three female TPG members and the only one who didn’t live in New Mexico; she resided in Cathedral City, a desert town just outside Palm Springs. Nevertheless, she joined the group on the strength of shared affinities and succeeded with paintings whose subject is light. Winter (1933), a purplish white orb of exquisite color gradations flanked at the bottom by aquatic plants, reaches toward a low-hanging “planet” in an arctic setting where two pigeons incongruously occupy a ledge in the foreground. Other noteworthy Pelton works include Light Center (1937-9) and Memory (1937). The first shows an egg-like form moving upward through a column of pink-and-blue light; the second depicts a vase overflowing with amoeba-like shapes, wafting from the top like an alchemical experiment gone pleasantly awry. Pictures like these reinforce the impression that Pelton, despite appearances, viewed nature not as a subject but as a portal to a higher realm.
Emil Bisttram’s paintings are the exhibition’s highlight and perhaps the best examples of how Kandinsky’s Theosophy-derived thinking served as a blueprint for the TPG and its core belief: that the ineffable revealed itself to initiates in the form of abstract geometric shapes. A 1941 work titled Oversoul, featuring two ovoids penetrated by pyramidal shapes set on a foundation of multi-colored horizontal bands, illustrates. It shows Bisttram distilling the English Theosophists Annie Besant’s and Charles W. Leadbeater’s ideas into “thought forms” presented as color-coded “auras.” Creative Forces (1936) extends this line of thinking in a series of pointy-tipped bands of color jutting out from overlapping spheres, illustrating what Roland Barthes, decades later, and in a slightly different context, called the punctum: that which pierces consciousness. Lord Maitreya (1956), a rendering of what looks to be a petroglyph superimposed atop a star map, has a figure scratched onto a luminous aquamarine ground, with points of light anchoring the extremities. An atypical work within Bisttram’s oeuvre, it stands as the exhibition’s most arresting picture, readable today as a kind of extraterrestrial Burning Man. Its title, which loosely translates as “Buddha of the future,” says much about the TPG’s cosmic aspirations.
Another World starts to lag at about the midpoint. Nevertheless, a good many of the remaining paintings merit serious attention. They include Lawren Harris’ Abstraction # 119 (1945), whose rainbow and chevron shapes foreshadow the kind of geometric abstraction Frank Stella would ride to fame decades later; Florence Miller Pierce’s Centrifics (1938) for how it weaves stucco-like surface textures into an alluring mandala-shaped eye magnet; and Ed Garman’s incisive Abstract No. 276 (1942). A collection of circles, squares and lines of various widths laid atop orange and oxblood grounds, it comes closer to musicality than perhaps any other work in the exhibition, pointing to how painting can blur the usual distinctions between sight and sound. Among the TPG artists who advocated for doing so, it was Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) — the minimalist composer whose works were performed alongside those of Darius Milhaud, Edgar Varese and Arnold Schoenberg – who seemed to have the best grasp of how this might be accomplished. Evidence rests with a solo piano soundtrack he created to accompany a video animation of 30 watercolors by another group member, Horace Towner Pierce. The latter’s drawings fail to excite, but Rudhyar’s music is transporting. It evokes similar forays into atonality by Eric Satie and sets a spooky, rapturous mood that, like an effective film score, subliminally alters and enhances perception.
World War II spelled the end of the TPG, dispersing its members and diluting whatever impact it might have exercised had it continued. Its dissolution did not, however, derail the members’ careers. All continued to work and exhibit, but none save Pelton – who was awarded a solo show at the Whitney Museum in 2020 — enjoys significant name recognition today. Can Another World alter that? Judging from the ecstatic reception given Hilma af Klint, it’s hardly a stretch to think that it might. The underlying issue, of course, is whether the collective unconscious, its ancient symbols and the visual strategies the TPG employed can convey to contemporary audiences the same wonder its members felt when the group began its quest in the early part of the last century.
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“Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group” @ Crocker Art Museum through November 20, 2022, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 18, 2022 to June 19, 2023.
Cover image: Raymond Jonson, Casein Tempera, No. 1, 1939, casein on canvas, 22 x 35 inches.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.