When the Transcendental Painting Group Brought Modernism to the Desert in an Effort to Heal

October 23rd, 2023

Emil Bisttram, “Oversoul”, 1941. Public domain image (detail)

In the late 1930s, as the United States was still reeling from the Great Depression and European countries were bracing for an inevitable clash with Hitler, a group of nine artists from disparate backgrounds connected in Taos, New Mexico based on a shared desire to paint the unseen. Calling themselves the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), the group’s primary objective was “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world through new concepts of space, light, and design, upon planes that are termed idealistic and spiritual,” according to the group’s 1938 manifesto.

London, England – February 13: A piece of work entitled Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp is displayed during a press preview of ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery on February 13, 2013 in London. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Abstract and non-objective painting was hardly a new concept at the time. In 1913, the International Exposition of Modern Art in New York City—more commonly known as the Armory Show—introduced Americans to the works of European avant-garde painters, such as Marcel Duchamp, whose cubist masterpiece Nude Descending the Staircase caused an uproar. Most people in the United States were not yet accustomed to art that was challenging and nonrepresentational, so, for many, the initial reaction was one of confusion and dismay. However, once the initial shock wore off, the lasting result was that both visual artists and the general public gained a new perspective about the possibilities of what art could be.

Related: The Armory Show: The Exhibition That Changed Everything

Emil Bisttram, “Creative Forces”, 1936. Public domain image

Still, by 1938, the Establishment at-large was skeptical of nontraditional styles of painting. The government-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA)—enacted in 1935 by President Roosevelt in an effort to kick-start the ailing economy—is a good indication of the prevailing art and design trends of the day. This meant art that was easy to understand and communicated ideas to the masses in a simple, uncomplicated way. Additionally, many other artists at that time were heavily influenced by European modernism, including the work of those who had recently immigrated to the United States to escape Nazi Germany. Regionalism also came into play. In New Mexico, this meant representational paintings of Native Americans, desert landscapes, sunsets, and the like. Thus, part of the rationale for creating the Transcendental Painting Group was the hope that, collectively, it could generate enough public interest and momentum in non-objective, abstract art to justify museum shows and exhibitions—something that would have been much more difficult for any of the individual members to achieve on their own.

Agnes Pelton, “Sand Storm”, oil on canvas, 1932, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2012.504. Public domain image

At the core of the Transcendental Painting Group was Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, who founded the group at the latter’s home in 1938. Dane Rudhyar, an avant-garde writer who was involved in the study of Zen Buddhism, Theosophy, and astrology was also at the first meeting and served as co-author of the group’s manifesto along with Jonson. Joining them later were: Lawren Harris, a Canadian-born artist who moved to nearby Santa Fe in 1938; Agnes Pelton, who lived in California but was brought to the group by Rudhyar on the basis of her spiritual abstract paintings; William Lumpkins, a local artist and architect of solar adobe houses whose work was influenced by Zen philosophy; Stuart Walker and Robert Gribbroek, who were friends with Lumpkins; Florence Miller and Horace Towner Pierce, both students at Bisttram’s Taos School of Art, where they met, fell in love, and eventually got married; and, finally, Ed Garman, a Pennsylvania native, who attended the University of New Mexico and soon became inspired by the local landscape and the teachings of Wassily Kandinsky.

Related: Wassily Kandinsky: 10 Facts to Know

Wassily Kandinsky, “Black and Violet”, 1923, oil on canvas. Public domain image

In fact, Kandinsky was one of the main through lines that united this group of diverse, multinational artists (as were Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich). Unlike other art movements such as futurism, surrealism, or cubism in which there is an apparent visual language, the members of the Transcendental Painting Group all had their own distinct styles. Rather, they were bonded by a few key philosophies, including Zen Buddhism, theosophy, and dynamic symmetry. According to Nancy Zimmerman in Trend, these artists “eschewed such concepts as religion, politics, fashion, and commercialism in favor of promoting a sense of the sublime, of connecting to the realm of the spirit.” Indeed, at a time when the physical world seemed so uncertain—economic hardship at home, mounting political tension abroad—they saw abstract painting as a way to expose deeper inner truths of a spiritual nature, which, they believed, would serve to psychically unite and soothe the world’s inner turmoil.

Emil Bisttram, “Pulsation The Oversoul”, 1938. Public domain image

Related: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lost Paradise

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Transcendental Painting Group disbanded as the United States’ entry into World War II necessitated new and urgent priorities for many of its members. However, despite the group’s short life span (lasting from 1938–1942), its impact was enormous and lasting. In addition to participating in the New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, it also had a group show at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later re-named the Guggenheim Museum) in 1940. Almost all of its members continued to paint throughout their lifetimes (with the exception of Stuart Walker, who died in 1940), utilizing many of the same principles the Transcendental Painting Group was based upon. To this day, reverberations of the group’s original statement of purpose—in short, painting abstract compositions with a spiritual intent—can be seen in the work of various contemporary artists, including Judy Chicago, Loie Hollowell, Mary Weatherford, and Lily Stockman.

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One comment so far

  1. Golgatha Says:

    Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) painted like this.

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