Monday, December 19, 2016

Huntington Adds Pelton and Reiffel, Cult-Fave Moderns

Agnes Pelton (1881 – 1961), Passion Flower, c 1945, oil on canvas, 24 × 16 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. 
The Huntington's Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art has acquired key paintings by Agnes Pelton and Charles Reiffel, each a once-neglected modernist now on a critical upswing. Both worked in Southern California. 
Pelton's Passion Flower (about 1945) has gone on view next to Henrietta Shore's Clivia, itself a 2016 purchase. The Reiffel, Bit of Silvermine—The Old Farm House (1916), has been on display since 2014. Lenders Sandra and Bram Dijkstra have made the loan a gift. 
Charles Reiffel (1862 – 1942), Bit of Silvermine – The Old Farm House, 1916, oil on canvas, 34 1/2 × 37 1/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra.
Indiana-born Charles Reiffel studied in Munich and began his art career on the U.S. East Coast. In 1912 he bought a home, sight unseen, in Silvermine, Connecticut. The story is that he was annoyed to discover that it was an artists' colony. The Dijkstra painting, Bit of Silvermine, is considered a breakthrough. It demonstrates that a few savvy Americans knew of modern innovations a year before the Armory Show. Bit of Silvermine brings to mind Chaim Soutine's Ceret landscapes and is actually a few years earlier. 
For a while Reiffel was prominent in the New York art world. His downfall(?) was a 1925 road trip to Taos and San Diego. Reiffel liked California enough to stay and spent the rest of his life in San Diego. Though he was a trustee of the San Diego Museum of Art, he died broke and largely forgotten. For decades his dark, radical expressionism, often of the San Diego backcountry, was lumped in with sunny California Impressionism. 
Agnes Pelton was radical enough to have two paintings in the Armory show. She was even more itinerant than Reiffel was, living in Greenwich Village, East-End Long Island, and Taos (she arrived six years before Reiffel and became the first president of the Transcendentalist Painting Group). Pelton spent a while in Hawaii and toured the Middle East. In 1932 she visited Cathedral City, Calif., which became her final home.  
Small detail of Agnes Pelton's Passion Flower, c 1945. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. 
In an earlier post, I noted the rhyme between Pelton's Passion Flower and the abstracted flowers of early-American decorative painting. It is equally possible to see Pelton as a portent of the future. She praised the "vibration" of the desert light. The luminous background of Passion Flower suggests a Turrell ganzfeld.
Henrietta Shore (1880 – 1963), Clivia, ca. 1930, oil and pencil on canvas laid down on board, 26 × 26 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with funds from the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation Acquisition Fund for American Art. 
Henrietta Shore's more fact-based Clivia is a worthy comparative. As far as I know, no other museum owns and displays two prime works by these California modernists. (And there's more. Helen Lundeberg's Irises completes a trio of counter-intuitive flower subjects by women artists). 
I will close with this passage from Christopher Knight's 2009 article on the Huntington's American art collection:

"Rather than another cartoon-like Thomas Hart Benton from the 1920s, which the Huntington recently acquired, it would be great to see a Henrietta Shore floral, a Modernist pastoral landscape by Charles Reiffel and transcendental abstractions by Raymond Jonson and Agnes Pelton from the same period. These are painters not always encountered in the mainstream story line. But their best works are better than the routine Ashcan School and Social Realist works found here. The Huntington needs to shake things up."

Is Knight a Nostradamus or Svengali? Here's to a Raymond Jonson in 2017!



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