Columbia Forum

Judy Chicago on Agnes Pelton’s Awakening: Memory of Father

Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton, Awakening: Memory of Father, 1943.
Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase, 2005 (2005.21.1)

Photo by Cameron Gay

Whenever I see an Agnes Pelton painting, I feel drawn to its mystery and luminosity. I always feel there is some deep symbolic meaning, but what that is isn’t always clear.

Pelton was part of the Transcendental Painting Group of New Mexico, a short-lived group of painters in the 1930s and ’40s who, influenced by Cubism and the Bauhaus, were primarily abstract. A peer of Georgia O’Keeffe, she was also brought to New Mexico by the great eccentric arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. I see a certain affinity between their work in the way they use color and form to convey an internal reality.

My reading of this painting is that it’s a dreamlike scene: an abstracted landscape with both night and day present simultaneously. Stars appear in the dark sky to the left, while the small body of water is under the light sky to the right.

The form in the sky has been described as a golden trumpet, but that’s not how I read it. If you look closely, underneath that shape and also on top of it is a faint texture that makes it feel like it’s moving, spinning into a lighter sky. For me that form ascending into the sky and spinning away from the landscape is a luminous symbol of death.

Agnes Pelton’s father died when she was ten years old. My father died when I was thirteen, and I also dealt with his death in abstract painting. If you rotate the painting to the left so that it’s vertical, the mountain turns into what looks like a silhouette. The museum reads it as her father’s face, but I think that’s bizarre and literal.

Women like O’Keeffe and Pelton used abstraction to convey personal meaning, as opposed to just dripping paint on canvas or making circles like Ellsworth Kelly. One of my theories is that until the advent of abstraction, women artists were not free to convey their experiences directly. Abstraction opened up the visual landscape for us to invent forms to convey our internal reality.


Excerpt from “Judy Chicago on Agnes Pelton’s Awakening: Memory of Father” published in It Speaks to Me: Art That Inspires Artists (DelMonico Books-Prestel) © 2019 Prestel Verlag, Munich, Texts © Jori Finkel. Reprinted by permission of DelMonico Books-Prestel.