The Curious Case of the Transcendental Painting Group

The Curious Case of the Transcendental Painting Group

The Curious Case of the Transcendental Painting Group

A touring exhibition of 20th-century painting from the American Southwest is poised to be the next big art world hit. Yet the show forces us to ask: What is fueling the revival?

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Every generation gets to rehabilitate at least one artistic style that its predecessors dismissed as terminally uncool. And now, with renewed pressure on art museums to consider movements from outside the putative canon (mostly white, mostly male, mostly of the West), the pendulum of public favor has begun to swing even faster. In recent years, prominent tastemakers have reversed their positions on historical scenes once viewed as unserious: The 2020 Whitney Museum blockbuster show “Vida Americana” hoped to elevate Mexican muralism from its provincial status by showing how the muralists influenced abstract painters like Jackson Pollock, who studied under them in Mexico. In 2022, the Metropolitan in New York and the Tate in London extended the same courtesy to Surrealism—which has always been a hit with the public, but considered lowbrow by critics—by refuting the usual Eurocentric narrative with an internationalist one that cast new light on this otherwise cliché-ridden movement. Now the art world has set its sights on the next early-20th-century style to be rescued from the wrong side of good taste: the short-lived and long-forgotten Transcendental Painting Group.

In December, the touring exhibition “Another World: Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945” opened for the final stop of its multi-museum tour at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, where it will remain through June. It is the first comprehensive survey of this loose collective of early abstract painters, who had been mostly regarded—when they were regarded at all—as a regional anomaly not worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of modern art greats. Founded in Santa Fe and Taos, N.M., in the wake of the Great Depression, the TPG’s nine members viewed painting as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Though their individual persuasions varied, the artists shared a potpourri of proto–New Age beliefs like theosophy and an interest in painting invisible forces operating at the limits of consciousness.

The Transcendental Painting Group was conceived by New Mexico artists Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, the leaders of its Santa Fe and Taos chapters, respectively. Both were well-read in the canon of texts associated with early-20th-century seekers, including The Art of Spiritual Harmony by pioneering abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, whose ideas about art and the soul were foundational to many TPG members. The group, which first convened in 1938, was a refuge for artists who rejected the scene painting and social realism that dominated the American market at the time. Their goal, beyond their own edification, was to consolidate contacts in the art world in hopes of securing media exposure and major exhibitions, though few had broken through by the time the group disbanded three years later due to the disruptions caused by the impending war. It’s hard to know why, exactly, they never made it to the big league, though Jonson once remarked that Georgia O’Keeffe—the most famous Southwestern painter of all time—disliked his paintings; he believed this may have spoiled his chances to impress her husband, the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, whose tastes helped define the era.

The group’s biomorphic, almost sci-fi aesthetic set them apart from abstract painters in the coastal cities, but their pseudoscientific theories about the spirit were written off as kitsch. Now, with the arrival of this exhibition and its accompanying book of the same name—a sumptuous volume with illuminating essays about the TPG’s aesthetic and philosophical concerns—an alternate timeline has been proposed: What if the story of abstract art in America begins not in New York or San Francisco but in the American Southwest?

There is nothing sexier than turning an official history upside down. Such discoveries make careers: Be it the professor or the curator, validating an underappreciated movement or uncovering one that was previously unknown is an easy route to a sinecure. Stories like these are catnip for critics like me, too, especially writing for a progressive magazine like The Nation, whose arts coverage is driven in no small part by an imperative to diversify the canon. (“I like historical surveys that take us out of standard sites of cultural production,” my editor responded when I pitched him this essay.) These revelations also drive the sale of museum tickets, and as a result, art-world professionals are conditioned to seek novelty in the form of recuperation and reevaluation.

In the case of what’s happening here with the Transcendental Painting Group, they’ve struck an honest-to-God gold mine of very good—and very novel—paintings that have sat in small regional collections for almost a century. Still, something about the process feels a little bit rehearsed, insofar as it follows a predictable script for how to sell the new (or old) and unfamiliar to the museum-going public. And while the boosters of the TPG see their project as a corrective to the elitist bias that elevated the New York School of abstract art above all else, the catalog doesn’t bother to examine the assumptions on which that bias is built.

One such assumption is that the art world, after nearly a century of repression, is finally willing to talk about God. This notion stems from a 1986 traveling exhibit called “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” which argued that spirituality and the divine, a driving force in early modernism, was edited out of art history by the defiantly secular tastemakers of the 20th century. (“No one in his right mind goes to an art museum to worship anything but art,” the painter and critic Ad Reinhardt wrote in 1957, in a satirical article about how to succeed as an abstract painter.) And yet, certain pioneers of abstraction—like Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky—were self-styled mystics who painted, in part, to commune with higher powers. Kandinsky’s first experiments with nonobjective painting were inspired by the widely read occultist text from 1905, C.W. Leadbeater’s Thought-Forms, which posited that thoughts could be captured on paper or canvas through a synesthetic process of inner contemplation.

The 1986 exhibition’s thesis was reinforced by the rediscovery of Swedish painter and spiritualist Hilma af Klint, whose phantasmagoric canvases (some dating back to 1907) were first displayed at this very show, at which point she became recognized as perhaps the first abstract artist in Western history. Following a series of blockbuster museum shows in the last decade, including a widely influential Guggenheim retrospective in 2018, af Klint has become a household name. Now, with the clarity afforded to us by a century of distance—and as a result of our increasingly spiritual moment—we can look back and acknowledge that this approach to art is as valid now as it was then.

“Is This the Next Hilma af Klint?” read the headline of an Artnet article introducing readers to Agnes Pelton—the TPG’s star artist—on the occasion of her first posthumous traveling museum show, in 2020. The similarities are evident: Af Klint and Pelton belonged to different generations of the same occult movement that swept through bourgeois social circles starting in the mid-1800s, which involved salon parties with séances and hypnosis. They both painted celestial motifs with round, fleshy edges and utilized a candy-color palette, though af Klint’s abstractions are composed of flat geometric lines, and Pelton’s are dimensional and richly textured.

Much of the chatter around af Klint’s Guggenheim show was that it broke the ceiling for so-called spiritual art, creating an interest in work whose subject matter was once considered tacky—and, of course, driving speculation that raised the value of these paintings exponentially. The success of Pelton’s posthumous solo show in 2020, which ended its tour with a stop at the Whitney Museum, stoked public interest even further, and “Another World: Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945” arrives at the perfect time to keep the prices climbing. It’s the first time most museumgoers will encounter any of these artists, including Raymond Jonson, the TPG founder whose sleek airbrush paintings look shockingly contemporary, and Florence Miller Pierce, whose well-balanced shapes produce a sense of stillness and peace.

The figure who’s credited with forcing these spiritualists into the closet is the influential postwar art critic Clement Greenberg. Writing in the Partisan Review and in the pages of this magazine from the early 1940s on, Greenberg militated for artists to abandon symbolism, representation, and illusion in order to attain an art form based on pure visual feeling. Subsequent generations of critics have since exposed the masculinist bias inherent in his notion of universal aesthetics: It’s easy for white men to downplay the embodied nature of subjectivity because we move through a world that constantly reaffirms ours as objective and rational.

In the exhibition catalog for “Another World,” Greenberg and his ilk are posited as gatekeepers whose narrow views laid the groundwork for the TPG’s exclusion from the canon. Even the obvious metaphysical inclinations of an artist like Mark Rothko, for instance, have been glossed over or “subsumed into Greenbergian formalism” by the institution of art history, writes editor Michael Duncan. And while I agree that it’s worth examining the rationalist tendency that has stifled so much creativity (artistic or critical), I also don’t think we should run off and embrace a notion of the nonrational that is its discursive mirror image. By defining the Transcendental Painting Group so often against their New York counterparts, Duncan and the other essayists in this volume have missed an opportunity to dissolve the binary rather than simply invert it. They don’t explicitly argue for the TPG’s status as major artists on the level of the New York School, but this is the impression they give by setting the two movements up as foils. The TPG deserve praise for their rigorous and intense pursuit of the fanciful, but their theoretical incoherence detracts from their experiments in form.

Comparisons are frequent throughout the catalog: Where the TPG had “soul,” Abstract Expressionism was pure “theory and geometry”; where the TPG offered “a path to psychological integration,” Abstract Expressionism promised only “intellectual construction”; where the TPG’s shapes tended to follow “nature’s example,” Abstract Expressionism sought “pictorial self-sufficiency.” It’s clear enough that these rules don’t apply across the board, but they are reiterated enough to suggest that the TPG’s commercial failure was a result not just of bad luck but also of having been wronged by the era’s gatekeepers. The underdog narrative enriches the exhibition’s lore, but it also depends on either/or distinctions that don’t necessarily hold water. For instance: Was Abstract Expressionism really against nature, and were the TPG really for it?

“Outright abstract painting, including Mondrian’s, when it is successful, establishes its aesthetic by referring to the integrity of objects in nature,” Greenberg wrote in 1961. “It is not because they are abstract that the work of the later Kandinsky and his followers fails to achieve coherence and substantiality,” but because they “lack a sense of style, a feeling for the unity of the picture as an object; that is, they lack almost all references to the structure of nature.” This might sound counterintuitive: that the work of Mondrian—which consists of lines and rectangles—boasts more verisimilitude than that of, for example, Agnes Pelton, who painted naturalistic shapes and colors reminiscent of rock formations, amoebas, and sunsets. What Greenberg meant was that, although Pelton’s iconography may bear resemblances to nature, such appearances are no more than sleight of hand. Mondrian, by contrast, rejected the use of illusion to create the realistic effect of light and depth, choosing instead to embrace the natural logic of the canvas as a flat picture plane. I like Pelton’s paintings, but I agree with Greenberg that, ultimately, the reason we derive any pleasure from a work of art is because it possesses some internal coherence, a quality that gets muddled when it aspires to be something it’s not.

But it wasn’t what the TPG painted, editor Duncan argues, that rubbed people the wrong way, so much as why they painted. Essentially, they viewed painting as a way of establishing communication between higher and lower realms, whether in the psychological sense of exploring the subconscious, or in the mystical sense of piercing the veil. “Transcendental art does not aim primarily to be pleasurable, comfortable, an escape from stark reality,” TPG member Dane Rudhyar wrote in an unpublished book about the group. “Its purpose is to stir, to move, to generate creative reactions and transcendent processes in those facing it.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t think even the most rigid Greenbergian modernist would find this statement controversial, because these constitute essentially the same impetus—for me, to experience a revelation is to experience pleasure, and vice versa. So when these essays refer over and over to the idea that spirituality was, until very recently, an unmentionable concept within a culture “dominated by Puritanical Protestantism,” it’s not always clear what aspect of the TPG caused so much offense. I’m not a spiritual person, and while these paintings do indeed stir in me a “creative reaction and transcendent process,” I’m not sure this counts as a spiritual encounter. Unless, of course, it is.

Whether or not you’re a believer, the ideas in these paintings are so highly developed that there can be no doubt about the strength of the artist’s belief, and that excitement is infectious. Looking at a painting like Pelton’s The Voice (1930), which depicts a white-hot plume of light, like a feathery mushroom cloud, erupting from a dusky oceanic surface, you sense immediately that you’re in the presence of something awesome, simply from the sense of immense scale and seemingly infinite depth of field. You don’t need to subscribe to the artist’s kooky occultist ideas to grasp that, which is why it strikes me as reductive to attribute her posthumous success to some “vast sea change” in the culture, as Duncan does. Spirituality aside, the Transcendental Painting Group are a welcome reminder that art can be deep without being aloof, removed, or highly theoretical; it can be naive and idealistic, swing big and occasionally miss, predict the future and get it wrong, bite off more than it can chew. It’s proof that art can aspire to greatness without needing to achieve perfection.

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