ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Toward the end of the Great Depression, a loose configuration of New Mexico artists rebelled against the social realism and Americana then dominating American art.
Founded in 1938 in Taos, the Transcendental Painting Group explored a spiritual vision of the American landscape. These painters used free-wheeling symbols and imagery drawn from the collective unconscious to portray a spiritually vibrant America.
“Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group” opens at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, June 26. The traveling exhibition was organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California.
Under the guidance of the painters Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, the group’s affiliated artists included Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce, William Lumpkins, Horace Pierce, Robert Gribbroek, Stuart Walker, Lawren Harris, Dane Rudhyar and Ed Garman. All of them worked in New Mexico except Pelton, who lived in southern California.
The Transcendental Painting Group issued a manifesto stating that their purpose was “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.”
“They wanted to engage in works that were more abstract,” curator Josie Lopez said. “It was also embedded within broad issues of spirituality. They were really trying to imagine a better world; they did it with their beautiful artwork.”
The group incorporated theosophy and Buddhism, as well as the non-objective experimentation of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. These artists sought to evoke sensuous experiences of nature and the cosmos, often incorporating rhythm and music into their work.
Jonson moved from Chicago to New Mexico in 1924. He began teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1934.
“He opened one of the first gallery spaces that allowed contemporary artists to show here,” Lopez said.
The university built the Jonson Gallery in 1950 to serve as the artist’s private home and studio, as well as a teaching gallery. Jonson donated his personal collection, intending to establish a lasting repository for works by the Transcendentalists.
Jonson’s work developed over time, ranging from landscapes to a pointillist self-portrait. He often produced abstractions of the New Mexico landscape.
Jonson’s painting “Oil #2” reveals a transparency through layers of color and shapes. In 1938 he began to use an airbrush, allowing him to eliminate brushstrokes.
“His titles were often obtuse,” Lopez said. “He doesn’t offer you a lot of information. He’s asking the viewer to look at the work.”
Born in Hungary, Bisttram moved to Taos in 1930, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the landscape as well as its mystical light.
He founded the Taos School of Art in 1932.
Bisttram said he painted “Creative Forces” (1936) while he was meditating on creation.
“He has that overlapping oval and circular technique,” Lopez said. “The top resembles an eye with light streams of enlightenment.”
Last year, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art presented a one-women survey of Pelton’s work as a “Desert Transcendentalist.” She visited New Mexico via an invitation from artistic magnet Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos in 1919.
Using an abstract vocabulary of curvilinear, biomorphic forms and delicate, shimmering veils of light, Pelton portrayed her awareness of a world that lay behind physical appearances – a world of benevolent, disembodied energies animating and protecting life.
“Light is very much central to the work she created,” Lopez said. “There are also overlapping ovals and circles.”
Pelton often incorporated the night sky into her painting as she remained engaged with the natural landscape. She regularly painted more traditional landscapes to support herself.
“They all were fascinated by the light here and the sky here,” Lopez said.
Short-lived, the Transcendental Painting Group dissipated in 1941 as the pending war limited their ambitions. Revivalist New York art dealer Martin Diamond rediscovered their work in 1979 after a colleague showed him a Jonson painting.
Diamond began representing Jonson and introduced the group’s paintings to a wider New York audience. Since that time, the Transcendentalists have appeared in numerous gallery and museum shows and in important public and private collections.