Re-air: The Unbelievable True Story of the Mystical Painter Agnes Pelton

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By Artnet News. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Art history thrives on stories of fearless visionaries leaving behind the lives they’ve known to embark on journeys into uncertain lands for personal enrichment and artistic illumination. But few are as surprising as that of Agnes Pelton, the spiritualist painter who departed New York in 1932—alone, at the age of 50—to begin a new chapter in the California desert. There, she supported herself for years by selling realistic portraits and landscape paintings to tourists while, largely unbeknownst to others, she also pursued a connection to the divine through one of the most forward-looking painting practices of the early 20th century.

A lifelong student of occult literature and unorthodox philosophies, Pelton languished in obscurity for decades before and after her death in 1961. But a handful of perceptive curators and scholars eventually recognized the importance of her otherworldly, semi-abstract canvases, which intermingle ethereal forms with a few identifiable symbols loaded with deeper meaning, such as stars and mountains. Pelton’s supporters first succeeded in bringing her work to the larger art world’s attention in the late 1980s, and more than 30 years later, she became the subject of a sweeping and critically admired solo exhibition that traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art this spring (before the museum, like so many others, was forced to close until further notice).

On this week’s episode, curator Barbara Haskell, who oversaw the Whitney’s installation of Pelton’s show, joins Andrew Goldstein to discuss the artist’s scandal-plagued upbringing, all-consuming engagement with spiritualism, and lasting relevance in a world once again seeking greater meaning beyond the physical realm.

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