Breaking Rad

Emil Bisttram, The Flaming One, 1964.  Collection of William Dailey and Nicole Panter Dailey 

The Transcendental Painting Group planted the flag of modernism in the high-desert Southwest. Founded in 1938 by Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, artist-teachers in Albuquerque and the Taos art colony, the group looked east to the European avant garde and west to Agnes Pelton, whose cosmic abstractions were a revelation to New Mexico's small modern circle. Jonson wrote Pelton at her Cathedral City, Calif., home-studio and convinced her to join the group in absentia. The TPG lasted only about seven years before World War II disbanded it. In the decades since, all its artists were largely forgotten, save for Lawren Harris, who retained a reputation in Canada. While Pelton has had several monographic shows recently, Bisttram and Jonson remain known mainly to specialists. A new show at LACMA attempts to change that. Organized by the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, "Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938-1945" covers all the TPG's major figures.

Installation view with paintings by Agnes Pelton
Raymond Jonson, Oil no. 9, 1942. LACMA
Agnes Pelton, Resurgence, 1938. Collection of Lynda and Stuart Resnick

Lawren Harris, Abstract Painting, No. 95, 1939. Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon 
The show has one dud: Lawren Harris. He's admired for his visionary northern landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s, the subject of a 2015 Hammer exhibition. None are on view here—his stay in Taos switched his focus to abstraction. People said it was a mistake then. Steve Martin says it was a mistake now. Harris is the one artist here for whom the TPG influence was a bad thing.
Robert Gribbroek, Beyond Civilization to Texas, 1950. Collection of William Dailey and Nicole Panter Dailey
Not much is known about Robert Gribbroek. He spent several years living in the Indigenous community at Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, then took art classes with Emil Bisttram alongside other of the show's artists. After the war, he moved to Hollywood, working in animation for Disney and Warner Brothers. His few known paintings include only one abstraction. He otherwise did close-up botanical/surrealist subjects falling somewhere between Georgia O'Keeffe and Eugene Berman. Gribbroek did backgrounds for Chuck Jones' Roadrunner cartoons. In this way there may be an authentic avant-garde pedigree to Wile E. Coyote's canyonscapes. 

Florence Miller Pierce, Rising Red, 1942. McNay Art Museum, San Antonio

Speaking of animation: The great painter Florence Miller's husband, fellow TPG artist Horace Towner Pierce, conceived an abstract motion picture that he called The Spiral Symphony in Four Movements: Birth, the Crystal, the Flower, Death. It got no further than a storyboard of 30 airbrushed abstractions and the intention that a score would be supplied by fellow TPG composer (and novelist and astrologer) Dane Rudhyar.  

Pierce wrote of his would-be film: "Most metaphysicians, biologists, and others whose studies lead them deep into the structure of the Cosmos agree that the spiral form is the basis of life as we know it."

Two years later, Disney released Fantasia. In 1953 Watson and Crick announced the "double helix" as the basis of life.

The exhibition includes a 2020 mock up of Pierce's film, based on his sketches. "Another World" runs through June 19, 2023.

Still from 2020 animated interpretation of Horace Towner Pierce's The Spiral Symphony in Four Movements, conceived 1938


md said…
Thanks for your piece about the exhibition. Not sure why the sound wasn't on for the Horace Pierce projection when you saw the exhibition. It isn't silent but was edited to a short piece of music by Dane Rudhyar that seemed to fit the mood of the work. Also Jonson didn't visit Pelton but just corresponded with her in letters. He gave her a show in New Mexico in 1933 and she joined the TPG in absentia. Sorry that you don't like Lawren Harris's abstractions. I think they are one of the highlights of the show and were sorely missing from the Hammer show.
Thanks—I've incorporated the corrections.