Synthesizing Transcendental Painting: Race, Religion, and Aesthetics in the Art of Emil Bisttram, Raymond Jonson, and Agnes Pelton

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Rees, Nathan
Promey, Sally M.
Three core artists of the Transcendental Painting Group, Emil Bisttram (1895-1976), Raymond Jonson (1891-1982), and Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), employed modernist painting styles in an attempt to create spiritually significant art. Although previous scholarship has focused on the artists' formal innovations, their work was imbricated in contemporary cultural politics, actively participating in discourses surrounding conceptions of race, religion, aesthetics, and the interrelation of each of these realms. Each drew from sources in metaphysical religious literature, especially Theosophy and related traditions. Their theories of ideal aesthetics for religious art, based on the supposition that artists could convey direct emotional experience through abstraction, reflected the Theosophical drive to overcome materialist philosophy by transcending the limits of physicality. Bisttram, Pelton, and Jonson also internalized Theosophy's promotion of syncretism as a guiding principle, and followed metaphysical religionists in advocating a combinative appropriation from diverse religious and artistic traditions. In particular, they relied on Theosophical conceptions of the importance of gleaning allegedly ancient wisdom as they addressed American Indian cultures of the Southwest. Their art created a hybrid iconography, combining symbolic elements from metaphysical religious sources with imagery derived from Southwest Indian cultures, asserting an integral relationship between the two, and advancing the perceived agreement between Native American and Theosophical religious systems as evidence of the truth of the latter. In addition to expressing metaphysical interpretations of Native American religions in their work, they promoted a transcultural aesthetic that posited American Indian art as an archaic and therefore "authentic" means of expressing of spiritual wisdom; they modeled their own abstract aesthetics in response to their encounters with Indian art. As they appropriated from Native American sources, they created images that celebrated the indigenous peoples of the Southwest as possessing unique and important religious knowledge. Their intent, however, was to advance Western culture forward by drawing from ancient sources to create a new, synthetic religion. The result was an art that referenced American Indian cultural practices and art traditions, but gave no voice to the original Native American artists, claiming to transcend the sphere of cultural significance and approach the level of "universal" meaning.