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Art review: 'Illumination' at the Orange County Museum of Art

June 22, 2009 |  3:31 pm

Agnes Pelton The kernel of a powerful idea resides within “Illumination,” an exhibition of abstract paintings by four women who worked in the deserts of the American Southwest and whose careers pretty much spanned the 20th century. But the kernel never really pops.

One reason is that the modest galleries of the Orange County Museum of Art, where “Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce” is on view to Sept. 6, are over-crowded. Seventy-seven paintings and 21 works on paper hang cheek-by-jowl in the four special exhibition rooms, overwhelming the available space.

OCMA curator Karen Moss has identified two pairs of artists from two successive generations whose affinities in their otherwise distinctive work may tell us something significant about the modern evolution of American culture. But a couple of provocative threads are left dangling.

Each pair features one well-known and one lesser-known artist. The first pair were born a

few years apart in the 1880s, before Modernist attitudes toward art stirred in the United States; the second were born in the 1910s, when the first American Modernist experiments were just beginning.

The first pair were also coming to maturity when the first wave of feminism was cresting with the 1920  passage of the 19th Amendment, the culmination of a long political struggle recognizing women's right to vote. The second pair roughly coincided with the second feminist wave after World War II, when American women's sociocultural inequality became the focus.

Georgia O'Keeffe Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is now among the most admired American painters of the early 20th century, with a large popular following for her close-up images of erotic flowers and dryly painted desert landscapes. She is juxtaposed in “Illumination” with Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), a German-born immigrant working in Cathedral City, outside Palm Springs, whose stylized, jewel-toned fantasies of radiant vessels, celestial apparitions, swelling colors and mystical lights suggest transformational states of consciousness.

Canadian expatriate Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is among the most admired American painters of the late 20th century, although the following for her spartan grids of soft pencil lines and pale stripes of tamped-down color is limited to the international art world. (Minimalism is not a crowd-pleaser.) She is paired with Florence Miller Pierce (1918-2007), who worked briefly in Los Angeles in the 1940s (also appearing in the classic avant-garde film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, “Meshes of the Afternoon”) before returning permanently to New Mexico.

A locally embraced maker of shaped resin panels that stand a few inches away from the wall and trap light within their geometric structure, Pierce is the show's weakest link. Looking heavy-handed and sometimes fussy next to the almost Puritan rigor of Martin's spare geometries, Pierce is at her best when simplest.

Florence Miller Pierce For example, a small off-white square of resin-coated mirror holds another square within the center of the field, its mysterious glow shifting from darkly burnished gold through bright synthetic orange, depending on the ambient light. The painting is a wholly self-contained physical object, which somehow keeps visually shifting into limitless deep space.

As years pass, the underappreciated Pelton just looks better and better. “The Voice,” a 1930 canvas that shows an anemone-like white eruption from a glowing red-orange core set against a midnight-blue field, is as powerfully enigmatic and beautiful a painting as the show has to offer.

Pelton was a close friend and associate of Raymond Jonson, whose Transcendental Painting Group flourished in New Mexico. But she worked in virtual isolation in the California desert. The OCMA show makes a pitch for her through sheer numbers — 31 paintings, compared to 20 for Pierce, 15 for O'Keeffe and 11 for Martin. Pelton infused an organic light into the otherwise machine-influenced Art Deco styling of the 1920s and 1930s, creating easel paintings that are like Modern talismans of spiritual wonderment.

A provocative impression is made by the spiritual dimension of these four artists' work. Typically it plays out in non-religious metaphors employing the mysterious emanation of internal light. All four were raised in orthodox Christian households, where women's roles were circumscribed. As they matured, all four also found themselves attracted to nontraditional and non-Western spiritual philosophies, including Theosophy, pantheism and Buddhism.

Spirituality is coupled with their experiences working in a society that had little room for art made by women. Two of the four — Pelton and Martin — were lesbians. Their sexual identity further alienated them from conventions of pre-gay-liberation American life, not just among men but among the ranks of most women. Together, the interplay of gender and religion represented as abstractions in their work seems to perform a major if not fully explored role in “Illumination.”

What's interesting is the way that gender and religion already have been established as having had a dramatic impact on American artistic ideas in the mid-19th century — the period that provides a pedestal for the 20th century sweep identified in “Illumination.” The classic 1977 study “The Feminization of American Culture” by the brilliant cultural historian Ann Douglas showed how Victorian clergymen and educated women gravitated toward the arts as the only available avenue for influence in a rapacious society of Gilded Age buccaneering. 

Agnes Martin “Between 1820 and 1875” -- that is, just before the birth of O'Keeffe and Pelton — Douglas wrote, “in the midst of the transformation of the American economy into the most powerfully aggressive capitalist system in the world, American culture seemed bent on establishing a perpetual Mother's Day. As the secular activities of American life were demonstrating their utter supremacy, religion became the message of America's official and conventional cultural life.”

The pairings in OCMA's exhibition don't go that far in their analysis, instead only skimming the surface of these abstract works. The two duos — sort of famous-big-sister/obscure-little-sister — can also seem a bit patronizing.

Partly, O'Keeffe and Martin owe their present stature to connections deeply forged early in their careers in New York, which was consolidating as the powerhouse global-financial center as their work developed. By contrast Pelton, who was one of just a handful of women invited to participate in the landmark 1913 Armory Show, which also introduced European Modernism to America, and Pierce never really had those ties. Working in the Southwest, Pelton and Pierce were considered “regional” artists, while O'Keeffe and Martin were New York artists living in New Mexico.

Still, these four painters are loosely framed in a compelling way in “Illumination.” In fact, they might well be signposts pointing the way to untold transformations in Douglas' story in its second and third acts.

-- Christopher Knight

“Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce,” Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Through Sept. 6. $12. (949) 759-1122.  

Images: (Top) Agnes Pelton's "Incarnation," 1929; (second) Georgia O'Keefe's "Yellow Cactus," 1929; (third) Florence Miller Pierce, "Untitled (Orange Pure)," 1994; (bottom) Agnes Martin, "Falling Blue," 1963. Credit: All images courtest of Orange County Museum of Art

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