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REVIEW : Forget Georgia; Agnes Finally Gets Her Due : Thirty-four years after Agnes Pelton's death, the painter's first retrospective reveals her mystical nature.

March 19, 1995|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic.

PALM SPRINGS — The modern ideal of painting as a process through which to dis cover a meaningful identity was important to countless American artists in the first half of the 20th Century.

Among them, a special place must be reserved for certain women. They faced the added complication of sexism, while working in an expanding artistic milieu that already had trouble getting serious respect from the larger society.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is by far the most famous of these painters, but long-forgotten figures such as Henrietta Shore (1880-1963) and Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) are also significant. Born in the 1880s, all three developed into maturity in the years that saw the women's suffrage movement grow and, in 1920, finally prevail.

More is known about O'Keeffe than one might wish, given the rather limited scope of her actual achievement. And Shore is slowly becoming the center of a dedicated gaggle of fans. Now Pelton, 34 years after she died in virtual obscurity in the Palm Springs suburb of Cathedral City, is at long last the object of much-warranted attention.

"Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature" is the first retrospective exhibition of this remarkable artist's career, as well as the first substantive show of her work since the 1950s. Organized by Michael Zakian, associate curator of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the show surveys 51 paintings made between 1913, when she was among a handful of women chosen by American painter Walt Kuhn to participate in New York's legendary Armory Show, and 1961, when she left more than one canvas unfinished at her death.

There is also a single drawing: "Standing Female Nude" (c. 1911-14), a gracefully fluid sketch in red and white chalk highlighted with pastel, and the earliest work in the show.

Together with its information-laden catalogue, which represents a yeoman's job of archival research, "Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature" ranks as perhaps the most important exhibition organized at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in its 19-year history. After the show's presentation there (through April 30), it will travel to a variety of small museums around the country before finishing its tour back in California--at Pepperdine University in Malibu in May, 1996, and at the Oakland Museum the following August.

Chronologically installed, the show is divided into two parts. First are two dozen paintings Pelton made in New York, where she lived from age 7, and on Long Island, where she moved into a small, isolated, seaside windmill after her mother's death in 1920. Next are two dozen paintings executed in California, where she chose to live starting in 1932, when forced by her landlord to vacate the windmill.

Each half of the exhibition is further subdivided in two. First are paintings that speak with the personal, exploratory voice of an avant-garde sensibility; these include a number of wildly off-center abstractions. And second are portraits and, especially, landscapes. Painted to appeal to a conservative American market that had no truck with abstract art, they are nonetheless wonderfully accomplished.

Pelton had been born into a comfortable family, but when her fortunes changed later in life she did have to earn a living. Abstraction was her passion, realism her bread and butter. She gave all her considerable talents to both.

Pelton's interest in the avant-garde is in evidence early on. Pictures such as "Vine Wood" (1913), one of two small canvases she contributed to the Armory Show, which introduced European Modernism in a big way to America, are pretty old-fashioned by the standards of that show. However, the loosely painted figure of a maiden dressed in a Grecian peplos and serenely gliding through a magically atmospheric forest (she's playfully taunted by a little monkey who clings to a vine) shows where the artist's introspectively inclined allegiance lay.

Pelton's budding sensibility might even be discerned in her drawing, "Standing Female Nude." The figure's tall, willowy, faceless, fully frontal pose flickers like a Symbolist apparition.

Her commitment to abstraction, however, did not develop until after 1925. Pelton had been born in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents, who also moved to Holland and Switzerland before returning to New York. Her father died of a morphine overdose when she was 10, and her mother opened a music school. Agnes helped out and, like many proper young ladies of her station, she took art classes that eventually led to study abroad.

Her dreamy paintings of the 1910s may be imbued with expressive longing, but they also feel tamped down and withdrawn. A lesbian, Pelton isn't known to have formed any long-term romantic attachments and, for the most part, she lived at home until early middle age.

With her mother's passing, Agnes fitfully began to strike out on her own. And the sense of spiritual quest that marked her earlier work began to accelerate.

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