The Painters Who Sought Refuge in a Higher Transcendental Power

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The art in Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group at the Crocker Art Museum explores how a group of introspective artists reacted to world events that recall those we face today.

Each artist in the show lived through a global pandemic, great economic disruption, the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl, and the existential and imminent dangers of rising fascism and war. “Chaos” was a word frequently used in the group’s writings to describe the wider world. 

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The Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) began around 1938 in the American Southwest, led by artists Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram. The group — which also included Agnes Pelton, Lawren Harris, Florence Miller Pierce, Horace Pierce, Robert Gribbroek, William Lumpkins, Dane Rudhyar, Stuart Walker, and Ed Garman — believed they were creating a new kind of American art. Veering from the landscape and Social Realist painting popular at the time, TPG artists used abstraction to explore their shared views. They envisioned art as a conduit for artist and viewer alike to connect with a higher power, removed from the commercialism and materialism of US art hubs.

The TPG had some connections in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and had hoped to show their work at the Guggenheim when it first opened under the moniker the Museum of Non-Objective Art, but they struggled for recognition. The best they could manage during their heyday was exhibiting some of their work in the 1939 Golden Gate Fair, and a smaller selection of it in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. 

Emil Bisttram, “Creative Forces” (1936), oil on canvas, 36 x 27 inches (private collection; courtesy Aaron Payne Fine Art, Santa Fe)

Their struggles for national and international attention were compounded by looming war in Europe and the Pacific. A handful of the members were drafted, a few moved to the East and West Coasts in pursuit of economic stability, and one was forced to return to Canada when transferring money across the border was outlawed during World War II. By 1941, the TPG was no more.

But the attention that long eluded them is finally starting to come. One of the group’s best-known members, Agnes Pelton, was the subject of a major show at The Whitney in 2020. Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque hosted an exhibition earlier this year, also called Another World, which examined the influence of the TPG on today’s artists. The Crocker’s Another World, the first survey of these artists outside of New Mexico, will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art later this year.

Although the work on view is strikingly unified in the artists’ commitment to the group’s mission, each artist brought a distinct flavor to their overall project. Pelton, who lived near Palm Springs, California, seems the most removed as her work reflects the desert landscape of her region. The others explored the cragged hoodoos and anticlines and ancient pueblos that are carved into the region around Santa Fe and Taos.

Pelton’s “Winter” (1933) depicts a pigeon and dove on a cliff in the foreground, with a great blooming cloud in the distance. The arched lavender cloud against the dark sky seems to suggest the narrow path toward a new beginning, as a pale glow at the top of the painting symbolizes hidden truths. Within the cloud are delicate lines hinting at two hills. The cloud seems to glow where the hills nearly meet and delineate the valley. It is as if Pelton has excavated a road from the cloud and revealed the path to paradise.

Florence Miller Pierce, “Blue Forms” (1942), oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 34 inches (collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon, New York)

Florence Miller Pierce, likewise, seemed particularly tuned to the heavens, to the hallucinatory splendor of the sky. Yet her tendency was to move away from the reality that Pelton evoked. “Centrifics” (1938) and “Blue Forms” (1942) exemplify the hazy, whimsical mood that TPG artists sought to capture as a means to question what is real in the surrounding world.

Works by other members focused on the play of organic forms in the world. Emil Bisttram, cofounder of the TPG, incorporated eye-like orbs that seem to gaze at the viewer with a combination of wonder and confusion. In “Projection No. 3 (Eye in the Sky)” (1936), the orbs look into a machine that is at once transparent and inscrutable. In “Creative Forces,” also from 1936, the form has become an egg that signifies all creation; Bisttram intended that the work be open to multiple interpretations.

Dane Rudhyar, the group’s official “spokesperson,” was adamant in his belief that the TPG heralded a new way forward. He wrote, “The issue today for America is between Transcendentalism and some form of Fascism; between a Walt Whitman and a Mussolini.” His own artworks integrate a gritty, sand-like texture; abstract whorls and peaks suggest a long-lost language.

Pelton described her works as “little windows.” Throughout their brief period as a formal group, the TPG sought a platform that would allow their skills as artists to flourish, and their art to be seen by the masses. Another World fulfills the artists’ goal to help us see that continents are within us that we must explore, and through them we can learn the virtue of remaining open to the mystery within.

Raymond Jonson, “Oil No. 2” (1942), oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches (Crocker Art Museum Purchase, George and Bea Gibson Fund with contributions from Barbara and William Hyland and Loren G. Lipson)

Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group continues at the Crocker Art Museum (216 O Street, Sacramento, California) through November 20. The exhibition was curated by Scott A. Shields, Crocker Art Museum associate director and chief curator.


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