The Art Angle Podcast: The Unbelievable True Story of the Mystical Painter Agnes Pelton

On this week's episode, Whitney curator Barbara Haskell joins the Art Angle to discuss the rediscovery of spiritualist painter Agnes Pelton.

A portrait of Agnes Pelton. Photo: Alice Boughton. Illustration courtesy Artnet.

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join host Andrew Goldstein every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more with input from our own writers and editors as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.


This week, the Art Angle team is taking a breather for Labor Day, but to celebrate the reopening of museums around the world, including Manhattan’s own Whitney Museum of American Art, we’re re-airing one of our favorite past episodes, which delves into the mysterious life and work of painter Agnes Pelton. 

Back in April, Andrew Goldstein spoke to curator Barbara Haskell, who organized the Whitney’s critically admired show, “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” which is back on view after a months-long hiatus. 

Art history is full of stories of fearless visionaries leaving behind the lives they’ve known to embark on journeys into uncertain lands for artistic illumination. But few stories are as surprising as that of Agnes Pelton, the spiritualist painter who departed New York in 1932—alone, at the age of 50—to begin a new chapter in the California desert. There, she supported herself for years by selling realistic portraits and landscape paintings to tourists while, largely unbeknownst to others, she also pursued a connection to the divine through one of the most forward-looking painting practices of the early 20th century.

A lifelong student of occult literature and unorthodox philosophies, Pelton languished in obscurity for decades before and after her death in 1961. But a handful of perceptive curators and scholars eventually recognized the importance of her otherworldly, semi-abstract canvases, which intermingle ethereal forms with a few identifiable symbols loaded with deeper meaning. Pelton’s supporters first succeeded in bringing her work to the larger art world’s attention in the late 1980s.

On this week’s episode, Haskell joins Andrew Goldstein to discuss the artist’s scandal-plagued upbringing, her all-consuming engagement with spiritualism, and her lasting relevance in a world full of people still seeking greater meaning.

Listen above and subscribe to the Art Angle on Apple PodcastsSpotifySoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. (Or catch up on past episodes here on Artnet News.)

The Art Angle will be back with a new episode next week.


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