Agnes and Me

You’ve not heard of Agnes Pelton? You’re not alone. How did I discover her? Well, I grew up with her, so to speak. Her family and my grandfather’s family were friends way back in Brooklyn, and my grandfather collected art, much of it by his friend Agnes. Their family money was lost in the Depression, along with his life and their family homes, but the art survived to be passed down, and I grew up with what my mother inherited.

My then favorite painting was a dreamy landscape of the windmill on Long Island where my mother’s family spent summers and where Agnes made her studio. We also had a full-size portrait of my mother at age ten, exactly my age when it was brought out and hung in our dining room. There were also a couple of lovely desert scenes. And that, I thought, was that.

Fast forward to 1996. I had changed coasts by then and moved to San Francisco, and was shocked to see in the newspaper a review of a new solo exhibition by–yes indeed–Agnes Pelton. So we hustled across the bay to the Oakland Museum, and to my astonishment I discovered that Agnes was also a superb painter of brilliant abstracts. Which completely changed the way I saw her. The catalogue of the exhibition, Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature by Michael Zakian, took me into Agnes’s true world for the first time. I began what has been a twenty-plus-year adventure, which has finally yielded my own book, The Pelton Papers: A Novel. It arrives just as Agnes herself makes a new entrance onto the art scene. Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, produced and curated by the Phoenix Art Museum, is up right now at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. In March of 2020, it will travel to New York City where it will dazzle the Whitney Museum of American Art before concluding at the Palm Springs Art Museum, just down the road from Agnes’s studio in Cathedral City. Welcome home, Agnes!