An Introduction to the Transcendental Painting Group

Modernism’s Arrival in the United States

Modernism arrived in the United States in two waves. The first of these occurred in the dawn of the twentieth century, influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Suzanne, or more generally speaking, the works of the Post-Impressionists and Cubists. The second wave began in the early 1930s, at a time when political disruption in Europe displaced many artists who then immigrated to the United States and New York City.

Great emphasis was placed on the emergence of two styles: Neoplasticism, as practiced by the Dutch artists’ group, De Stijl, as seen in the works of Piet Mondrian; and Non-Objective Abstraction, like the later works of Wassily Kandinsky. Stemming heavily from the latter, two groups of artists formed, with the purpose of bringing unique American modernist art to the public. The first of these began in 1937, when a small group of artists began meeting in the New York studio of the sculptor Ibram Lassaw to discuss and debate artistic concepts. They decided on the name American Abstract Artists, to encompass figurative and non-objective composition. The second, formed in 1938 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson, was the Transcendental Painting Group.

Piet Mondrian, Composition, oil on canvas, 1921.
Credit Line: Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.
Accession Number:1999.363.57 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Wassily Kandinsky, Several Circles, No. 323, oil on canvas, 1926.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Abstraction with Spiritual Intent

The Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) was founded on the principles of creating and promoting a pure abstract painting style imbued with spiritual intent. Below is the group’s manifesto as it was reprinted in a 1997 publication from the University of New Mexico, Johnson Gallery, entitled Vision and Spirit, The Transcendental Painting Group:

“The Transcendental Painting Group is composed of artists who are concerned with the development and presentation of various types of non-representational painting; painting that finds its source in the creative imagination and does not depend upon the objective approach.

The word Transcendental has been chosen as a name for the group because it best expresses its aim, which is to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual. The work does not concern itself with political, economic, or other social problems. Methods may vary. Some approach their plastic problems by a scientific balancing of the elements involved; other(sic) rely upon the initial emotion produced by the creative urge itself; still others are impelled by a metaphysical motivation. Doubtless as the group grows other methods will appear.

“The Transcendental Painting Group is no coterie, no accidental group of friends. The members are convinced that focal points in terms of group activity are necessary in order to present an art transcending the objective and expressing the cultural development of our time.

“The main activity of the Group will be toward arranging exhibitions of work. The goal is to make known the nature of transcending painting which, developed in its various phases, will serve to widen the horizon of art.”

The Artists of the Transcendental Painting Group

The nine original members of the Transcendental Painting Group were Emil Bisttram, Robert Gribbroek, Lawren Harris, Raymond Jonson, William Lumpkins, Florence Miller Pierce, Agnes Pelton, Horace Towner Pierce and Stuart Walker. They were later joined by Ed Garmin.

Raymond Jonson

Raymond Jonson, Watercolor No. 21, watercolor on paper, 1941. Image courtesy D. Wigmore Fine Art.

Raymond Jonson was born in Lucas County, Iowa. His father, a Swedish Baptist minister, would set the foundation for the artist’s spiritual beginnings. Jonson’s early career was in Chicago, where he created graphic art for a small theater group. In 1921, Jonson met Nicholas Roerich, a fellow artist, writer, and theosophist. The spiritual and artistic concepts of Roerich and the writings of Wassily Kandinsky would be the two greatest influences on Raymond Jonson‘s career. He moved to New Mexico in 1924 and accepted a teaching position at the University of New Mexico, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Emil Bisttram

Emile Bisttram, Abstraction, gouache, 1942. Sold at Swan Galleries June 2019 for $5,500.

Emile Bisttram immigrated to the United States from Hungary at age 11. His art studies were diverse, having spent time at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, Parsons School of Design, and the Art Students League. After completing his education he taught at the New York School of Fine Arts and Applied Arts. Among his curriculum was Principles of Dynamic Symmetry, developed by Jay Hambidge. These concepts would be an integral part of his formal style. In 1932 Bisttram settled in Taos, New Mexico, and established an art school, which several of the Transcendental Painting Group artists attended.

William Lumpkins

William Lumpkins, Watercolor #6, 1939. Sold at Swann Galleries June 2019 for $1,625.

Robert Gribbroek, a student at Taos, introduced William Lumpkins to Emil Bisttram. Lumpkins was the only member of the group who grew up in New Mexico.

Florence Miller Pierce

Florence Miller Pierce, Rising Red, oil on canvas, 1942. From the McNay Art Museum Collection.

Florence Miller Pierce was the youngest of the TPG. She studied art at the Studio School of the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery (The Phillips Collection) in Washington, D.C.. Hearing of the Taos School, she moved to New Mexico to study with Bisttram. She was married to fellow TPG member Horace Towner Pierce.

Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton, Orbits, oil on canvas, 1934. From the Oakland Museum of California Collection.

Agnes Pelton was born in Germany, and moved to the United States at the age of nine. She had poor health and was homeschooled. Having an aptitude for arts, she was given formal training at age 14 at Pratt Institute, NY. In 1910 she travelled to Italy, and furthered her studies at the British Academy, Rome, where she developed formal training in color and oil techniques. She eventually moved to Cathedral City, California where she met Raymond Jonson. Upon seeing her work, he encouraged her to join the TPG.

Lawren Harris

Lawren Harris, Abstraction, oil on canvas, 1939. From the National Gallery of Canada Collection.

Already an accomplished landscape artist, and nationally recognized in Canada for his work with the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris’s style of bold, simplified forms and celebration of the magnificence of the Canadian landscape was a small step from his abstract transcendental works produced in New Mexico.

Rediscovering the TPG: The Role of Revivalist Dealers

The Transcendental Painting Group was short-lived as a functioning body. Founded in 1938, they disbanded in 1941 as the pending war put strains on the group that limited their ambitions. Thankfully they were rediscovered in 1979 by New York–based dealer Martin Diamond. Marty is what some call a revivalist art dealer.

Revivalist dealers are like archaeologists: they are curious-minded people who find clues, then excavate to piece together a story of the past. Once discovered, they share these treasures with an audience by promotion and marketing to increase the recognition, bring value, and create a market where little existed. A colleague brought a painting by Raymond Jonson to Marty’s attention. From that spark of interest, he and his wife found their way to the home—and gallery—of the artist. First representing Jonson’s work, Diamond would delve deeper into the history of the Transcendental Painting Group with Jonson as his guide, and he in turn introduced their paintings to a wider audience through his New York gallery. His tireless efforts to find and acquire works by these artists culminated in a museum exhibition that he organized in conjunction with the Albuquerque Museum in 1982. Since that time there have been numerous gallery and museum shows, and works by the TPG are in important private and public collections.

Thankfully, there are many revivalist dealers active today. I had the good fortune to work for Gary Snyder. Time and again, Gary rediscovered artists, including Steve Wheeler, Hilla Rebay, and Vivian Springford. Another New York dealer who revives genres of art either overshadowed or under appreciated is Deedee Wigmore. Currently, Deedee is exhibiting the works of Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram. Though her exhibition space is currently closed to the public, Founders of the Transcendental Painting Group: Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram can be viewed in the virtual realm on her website. The closing date for the show has been loosely set for July, largely hinged upon her reopening to public view when operating restrictions due to the pandemic are lifted for galleries.

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Learn More: About Harold Porcher, Director of Modern & Post-War Art