The forms of Agnes Pelton’s Sea Change (1931) channel the movement and energy of water, which the artist regarded as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of human thought. Created the year she left Long Island for the Southern California desert, Sea Change can be understood as a meditation on personal transitions; however, Pelton refused such specific readings of her art. Influenced by modern Theosophy, an esoteric blend of religion and philosophy, as well as the mysticism of the American Symbolist painters, Pelton believed that art channels the universal energies of the natural world through color and light, which are experienced rather than purely seen. She described color as “active,” likening it to a voice or “vibration” that is ideally perceived like “the fragrance of a flower [which] fills the consciousness with the essence of its life.”
Photographed in the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC.
Influenced by Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte sought to strip objects of their usual functions and meanings in order to convey an irrationally compelling image. In Voice of Space (of which three other oil versions exist), the bells float in the air; elsewhere they occupy human bodies or replace blossoms on bushes. By distorting the scale, weight, and use of an ordinary object and inserting it into a variety of unaccustomed contexts, Magritte confers on that object a fetishistic intensity. He has written of the jingle bell, a motif that recurs often in his work: “I caused the iron bells hanging from the necks of our admirable horses to sprout like dangerous plants at the edge of an abyss.”
The disturbing impact of the bells presented in an unfamiliar setting is intensified by the cool academic precision with which they and their environment are painted. The dainty slice of landscape could be the backdrop of an early Renaissance painting, while the bells themselves, in their rotund and glowing monumentality, impart a mysterious resonance.
In her paintings, Florine Stettheimer (1871 – 1944) often depicted herself, her mother and sisters, and the artists who frequented the vibrant gatherings in her family’s Manhattan apartment. Alongside likenesses of her sitters, she typically included emblems of the individual’s identity — clues to character that could only be deciphered by this privileged audience.
At the center of Sun (1931) is a symbol deeply personal to the artist: a towering bouquet. Stettheimer picked a bouquet of seasonal flowers each year other birthday, recording the event in her journal; this one celebrates her sixtieth birthday and, with Florinewritten on the ribbon that snakes around it like a vine, suggests a stand-in for the artist herself. a woman, perhaps Stettheimer, lounges under an arbor on the distant, sun-drenched rooftop.
South of Scranton (1931) gathers various scenes that artist Peter Blume (1906 – 1992) encountered during an extended road trip in the spring of 1930. Setting out from his residence in Pawling, New York, Blume drove through the coalfields of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then headed south toward the steel mills of Bethlehem. Blume then traveled further south to Charleston, South Carolina, where he witnessed several sailors performing acrobatic exercises aboard the deck of a German cruiser ship in the harbor. In an account of the painting’s origins, the artist stated, “As I tried to weld my impressions into the picture, they lost all their logical connections. I moved Scranton into Charleston, and Bethlehem into Scranton, as people do in a dream.” Blume’s crisp technique heightens the painting’s surreal appearance.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) prominently displays the three colors of the American flag. Painted at a time when American artists, musicians, and writers were interested in identifying a uniquely American style and subject matter for their work, Georgia O’Keeffe offered a dissenting opinion about what images could best symbolize America.
Rather than paying homage to the lush agricultural landscape as the Regionalist painters did, or uncovering urban problems like the American Scene painters, she used a weathered cow’s skull to represent the enduring spirit of America. Although she made it as a joke on the concept of the “Great American Painting,” the picture is a quintessential icon of the American West.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue is part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.