The impression most people have of the history and meaning of 20th-century abstract painting basically involves a bunch of can-do postwar East Coast American dudes systematically stripping away subjective frills such as “content” to arrive at the monochromatic squares and precise geometric diagrams of Minimalism and Conceptualism, which allegedly refer to nothing outside themselves.

I’m not sure if any of the actual artists in question would subscribe to this version of history, but it has nonetheless seeped into the surface levels of our collective cultural consciousness, effectively burying a deeper and more complex story — a story less about real men optimizing the efficiency of the decoration industry and more about a bunch of middle-aged ladies wandering the desert in search of transcendental light.

However glossed over in the interests of secular technophilia, this alternate account of the significance of capital-A Abstraction keeps bubbling up, most elegantly in 2005’s 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin (possibly the best show ever hosted by the Santa Monica Museum of Art) but perhaps most emphatically in LACMA’s 1986 exhibit (and exhaustive catalog) The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. Aside from af Klint, one of my personal revelations from that show was local mystic Agnes Pelton, who spent her most productive years in Palm Springs–adjacent Cathedral City, painting luminous, symmetrical conflations of the natural and inner landscapes that teeter between geometric decoration and symbolic illustration; between sumptuous formal design and painting deployed as a tool for entering (and prompting) altered states of consciousness.

After experiencing the disproportionate presence manifested by Pelton’s Sandstorm (1932) in LACMA’s sprawling, cluttered millennial Made in California extravaganza — the modestly scaled but optically riveting oil painting actually caught and held my attention from across the vast museum lobby — I became a little obsessed. Pelton, born in 1881, had quintessentially beat-bohemian credentials. Though born into money, her maternal grandfather — journalist Theodore Tilton — had struck a major blow to American sexual Puritanism by suing his friend Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist but vocal opponent of the “Free Love” movement, for adultery with his wife. The resultant front-page trial did considerable damage to Beecher’s reputation (and the political credibility of overt sexual repression), and drove Tilton into exile in a Parisian boarding house, where he supported himself by writing poetry. That was the mother’s side. Pelton’s father, a globetrotting bipolar Louisiana sugar heir, OD’d on morphine when Agnes was 9.

As a Brooklyn teenager, Pelton studied at the newly opened Pratt Institute with Arthur Wesley Dow, who was shortly to become Georgia O’Keeffe’s most influential teacher. She quickly developed her own style of “imaginative” painting — a brushy, soft-focus symbolism, usually featuring a single female figure in nature — and exhibited two pieces at the 1913 Armory Show, the exhibition that introduced America to modern art. She worked out of a studio in Greenwich Village, but in spite of her success, she was unsatisfied with her work.

In 1917, she quit painting for more than a year. After her mother’s death in 1920, Pelton left the city for a rustic windmill at the far end of Long Island, where she continued exploring her mystical philosophical pursuits (astrology in particular) and struggled to reconcile her figurative and abstract impulses for the next decade, finally making the jump to pure abstraction in 1926.

She probably could have stayed in the East, alternating commissioned portraiture with her allegorical nature abstractions, but Pelton’s lease ran out and the windmill was sold. While visiting relatives in Pasadena, she wandered east into the desert, and that was it. Having turned 50, Pelton found her home and began producing the incandescent American thangkas for which she would be chiefly remembered.

In the course of my research I learned that I had missed Pelton’s only traveling retrospective to date — organized by the Palm Springs Desert Museum in 1996 — which had made it as close as Pepperdine’s Weisman Museum in Malibu. So when the Orange County Museum announced that it was mounting a four-woman show, including Pelton alongside Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin, and the lesser-known Florence Miller Pierce — I was relieved to be able to stop kicking myself, though it meant another trip to Fashion Island country.

There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in the location of the exhibit — titled Illumination — in the heart of one of the most materialistic urban spaces in America. While Pelton found her perfect environs in the Californian Sonoma Desert, the three other female abstract painters made their separate escapes to New Mexico. All four shared a strong spiritual grounding to their artistic practice, and found their vocabulary in the light, colors and forms of the natural world.

They had man problems, mental breakdowns and stopped painting at various points in their lives. All were at odds with the contemporary cultural context in which their work was contextualized, as well as the “sophisticated” urban social milieu in which artists — then as now — were expected to participate.

Illumination — curated by OCMA deputy director Karen Moss — does an excellent job of teasing out the uncanny parallels and telling differences between these women’s lives and oeuvres, roughly dividing the show between Pelton and O’Keeffe’s straddling of stylized pictorialism and formalist abstraction, and Martin and Pierce’s shared affinity for quasi-Minimalist geometry. As for the art itself, Pelton and Martin come out ahead. Pelton’s Transcendentalist abstractions live up to expectations. Their subtle light effects don’t lend themselves well to photographic reproduction, so this opportunity to see two dozen of them — augmented by her early “imaginary” work, her bread-and-butter landscapes, and other digressions — should not be missed.

Georgia O’Keeffe is a curiously underrated painter, considering her fame and iconic status. The selection of her work for Illumination seems designed as unspectacular support for the show’s historical thesis rather than to display her potentially overwhelming formal chops — there are a few gems, but it’s a mini-survey unlikely to convert skeptics. Agnes Martin’s rooms, on the other hand, are stellar, with large, important pieces like Falling Blue and Leaf in the Wind (both 1963) from her Manhattan period, several serenely radiant large-scale canvases from later decades, and a strong selection of works on paper.

Martin’s work is often lumped in with systems-based conceptualists and minimalism. Here, as in the 3X Abstraction show, it benefits by being surrounded by work with closer intentions to its own.
Florence Miller Pierce is the final piece of the puzzle, and the most peculiar fit. A member, with Pelton, of the Taos-based Transcendental Painting Group during the late 1930s, Pierce painted strong, biomorphic abstractions in the house style, moving between New York, D.C., and even L.A. (where she appeared as the mirror lady in Maya Deren’s landmark experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon) before settling in New Mexico with her sickly husband and abandoning art for several decades. It was the possibilities of new materials — particularly translucent resins on mirrored Plexiglas — to capture fugitive light phenomena, which rekindled her interest. Until her death in October 2007, she explored these possibilities in increasingly spare works that hover somewhere between ’70s corporate Op-art and religious icon painting.

Despite ongoing lip service to pluralism, the overarching narratives of art history and contemporary society continue to impose a tremendous influence in favor of linearity, rationality and social consensus in their evaluation of artists and their work. Illumination, apart from being a depth charge of Otherness in the heart of “the same ol, same ol” — and a damn fine looking one at that — is an object lesson in the once and future efficacy of turning one’s back on the dangled carrots and forced conviviality of the art world in order, as prophets have always been obliged, to seek truth in solitude in the wilderness. If you get bored, it’s usually just a few minutes’ drive to the nearest casino, fashion mall or museum.

Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach; through Sunday, Sept. 6.

LA Weekly