Suzanne Hudson on “Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945”

Eighty-five years ago, in what remains an obscure episode within the histories of abstraction, painters Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram (the latter of whom founded the Taos School of Art in New Mexico) formed the Transcendental Painting Group. They attracted artists such as Lawren Harris, William Lumpkins, and Agnes Pelton with their call for a kind of modernist vision quest born of archetypal imagery mined from the collective unconscious. Yoked to spiritual seeking, the TPG’s manifesto charged painting to move “beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design.” Still, this was a directive absent a manual, and the works—some eighty of which were brought together for “Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—made by these members and other affiliates prove willfully and irreducibly heterogeneous in their understanding of artmaking as much as of the makeshift theologies that might underpin it. Curated by Michael Duncan, this first national museum presentation of work by the TPG luxuriates in difference despite and because of these shared sympathies. Such predilections are revealed as topian aspirations, or symptomatic reactions to contemporaneous social unrest and fascism—realities that likely contributed to the experiment’s brief life span. Yet the TPG wasn’t incidental or anonymous: In the excellent catalogue, Duncan reminds us that in 1937, Jonson refused Josef Albers’s invitation to join the American Abstract Artists alliance in New York, preferring the Southwest instead.

Hostile to the narrative demands and moral censure of regionalism in their maintenance of nonobjective painting, the TPG also abjured the need for validation from other artists, particularly those with a narrowly Eurocentric sense of vanguardism, which may have prevented them from receiving broader visibility. “Another World” thus offers a remarkable act of recovery of eleven artists—some, such as Harris and Pelton, are better known than Ed Garman and Robert Gribbroek—and what they made before and after this interval of commitment. But the focus is on the TPG years, and the installation unfurls from tight groupings of works by Bisttram, Jonson, and Pelton, each cluster a monographic focus in close proximity to the others. Jonson’s canvas Eclipse (from the Universe Series), 1935, with its sinuous purple mountain range presided over by a tangerine orb, evocatively sets the desert scene. Bisttram’s Oversoul, ca. 1941—an oil-on-Masonite painting that features a dilating celestial body hovering over a rainbow horizon ensconced within a marine expanse full of stars—introduces themes of cosmic connection and the compositional tools, symmetry and tonalism, meant to instantiate such motifs. Many nearby pieces suggest the same understanding, if not application, of Kandinsky’s painting and writing alike, via Theosophy (including Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater’s landmark book, Thought Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation [1901]), among other sources. Pelton and her ersatz, crystalline, yet strangely evanescent cosmology are especially well represented, spanning two focal walls in the first gallery with Memory, 1937, and Birthday, 1943.

Vitrines show a sketchbook replete with Pelton’s notes detailing her thinking on color symbolism. But the looming presence of paintings by the artist such as Alchemy, 1937–39, a luminous incantation of Earth’s “golden glow . . . transcending,” as she put it in a related poem, keeps the activity mostly on the walls. In a smaller interior gallery, a nearly four-minute animation, The Spiral Symphony in Four Movements: Birth, the Crystal, Flower, Death, 2020, debuts in proximity to the airbrush-and-gouache drawings, created by Horace Towner in 1938, that were used to make it. Predicated on the transcendental shape of the spiral, it moves through the cycle of life in a pulsing, color-saturated dream. Set on a loop, it provides the only literalized movement in the show, which had the paradoxical effect of making the other still images throughout the presentation appear active. Many of them are already rife with quivering staccato marks, sweeping overlays, and sundry other forms meant to suggest motion. For its part, lacma eschewed the incorporation of a digital guide, as used in most other exhibitions, to encourage a hushed, even meditative experience. In this, the exhibition likewise recalls the museum’s watershed “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985” (1986), which similarly advocated for competing versions of functionalized abstraction: works that did something—held out the possibility of shifting perspective—for the maker and, by extension, possibly also for the viewer. The final stop on a five-city tour, with the whole thing postponed by the pandemic, LA saw the arrival of “Another World” right on time.

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