Presentation at LACMA wraps up Transcendental Painting Group exhibition tour
By Chadd Scott
Installation photograph, Another World The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dec 2022–Jun 19, 2023, photo © Museum Associates-LACMA
Dusky, ethereal, extra-terrestrial.
Celestial, cosmic, atmospheric.
Hallucinatory, meta-physical, meditative.
The Transcendental Painting Group strove "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,” according to their manifesto.
Doing so was greatly inspired by where the attempt was made. The Transcendental Painting Group formed in New Mexico in 1938. The desert. High desert mountains. Ancient, sometimes sparse landscapes. Anyone who’s visited the Southwestern United States will tell you a different quality of light exists there. A different atmosphere. Spirituality seems embedded in the soil.
Artists and spiritual seekers have long been drawn to New Mexico by this almost indescribably quality.
Members of the group sought to explore spiritually heightened abstraction by employing free-wheeling symbols and imagery drawn from the collective unconscious. They took up the challenge of painting moods, feelings, spirituality.
To outsiders – and the 10 members of the TPG were non-native New Mexicans – the state is a mood as much as a place. A feeling as much as a visual. Spiritual as much as tangible.
When observing their paintings, bear this in mind, keep New Mexico and the desert and the mountains in mind. They are as essential to the artworks as the lush green forests and valleys for the Hudson River Group or the sun dappled French countryside to the Impressionists.
Emil James Bisttram, Creative Forces, 1936, Private collection, Courtesy Aaron Payne Fine Art, Santa Fe
Precise lines contrasted with biomorphic loops. Curves with points. Sharp and round.
The first comprehensive traveling museum exhibition devoted to the group runs through June 18, 2023, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art having already visited Albuquerque, Tulsa, Naples, FL and Sacramento.
“The hope is this exhibition has fulfilled some of their original purpose for coming together – that is, that it establishes their success and inscribes them into the history of American art of the 20th century which is their reason for forming a group to begin with,” Leah Lehmbeck, curator for “Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945” at LACMA, said.
The group came together in 1938. The Depression drags on. Europe sits on the brink of calamity. The loose configuration of artists included several who would go on to earn significant reputations.
Raymond Jonson was a Black man who would teach at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for decades. He influenced generations of artists and his work can be found today in top museum’s around the country.
Emil Bisttram is a legend of Western painting and among New Mexico artists. He founded the Taos School of Art in 1932, not to be confused with the earlier Taos Society of Artists – the so-called “Taos Founders.”
Agnes Pelton came west escaping family drama “back East.” She has received the most individual acclaim among TPG members, most of that coming only recently.
“They are the stuff of dreams, visions and mirages; they often came to the artist while she slept or meditated and they arrived remarkably whole,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote of Pelton’s painting in her glowing review of Pelton’s 2020 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York which travelled the country. The show, rightly, elevated Pelton up the American art hierarchy several notches, as “Another World” is doing for the group at large.
Despite their age, the artworks have a remarkable contemporaneity. If any of them were presented as new works in today’s leading art fairs, they would still feel fresh, visionary.
Agnes Pelton, Resurgence, 1938, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick
“From a viewer's perspective, I think the paintings resonate with our place and time. That is, we are in a similarly challenging historical moment as the 1930s, Americans struggling, political upheaval,” Lehmbeck theorizes as to why TPG artworks feel utterly contemporary. “These painters were looking to spirituality to offer hope. Their hope and optimism come through the works of art. From an artist's perspective, we've seen consistent attention to spirituality in abstract art since that time, which certainly continues through contemporary artists today.”
Presenting 80 artworks by 11 artists including paintings and works on paper from the 20s through the 50s, “Another World” emphasizes how abstraction can be used in service of the spiritual. Bisstram said he produced paintings while meditating on creation. His paintings feature astronomical allusions, stars, an egg form.
Pelton, too, incorporated what looks like egg shapes in her beguiling paintings. A floating egg-form hovering in an ethereal blue background recurs often in her work, notably Winter (1933). Through subtle light modulations, Pelton captured the hallucinatory aura of the desert sky and landscape.
“They are much larger, and more powerful than they reproduce,” Lehmbeck said of the works on view in the show, many of which are over three feet in length or height. “There is also an extraordinary amount of gesture in the work, brush strokes, etc., that is only visible in person.”
Due to the onset of World War II, the group was short-lived, but its legacy will extend far into the future.