Celebrating Female Agency in the Arts - Christie's Education Symposium

Visionary Agency: Agnes Pelton, Grandma Moses, Jay DeFeo, and 20th Century American Art

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This session considers the visionary agency of three seemingly disconnected American painters: modernist Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), self-taught artist Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses (1860-1961), and multimedia artist Jay DeFeo (1929-1989).  While stylistically different, each undertook imaginative, inventive, and visionary modes of painting informed by independent understandings of spirituality, popular culture, and creative agency.  

Pelton was a romantic Symbolist painter who was included in the 1913 Armory Show and represented by several New York galleries.  In 1921, she abandoned her Fifth Avenue studio to pursue spiritual interests in New Thought, Theosophy, and Agni Yoga.  Moving near Palm Springs, California, Pelton painted colorful, lyrical abstractions that drew on her religious beliefs and visionary experiences.  Her style of spiritual modernism complicates mainstream narratives about American art by challenging notions of a predominant secularism. 

Painting in Eagle Bridge, New York, Moses’s folk art scenes of rural tranquility were adapted from memory, magazines, and postcards.  They were copyrighted in 1946, reaching American audiences through commercial products like greeting cards and enjoying a widespread popularity that led the critical establishment of her day to dismiss her.  This paper repositions Moses within her midcentury moment, locating her agency in her multiple identities as grandmother, yeowoman, and painter, a triumvirate captured by the title of her debut solo exhibition of 1940, “What a Farm Wife Painted.” 

DeFeo, based in San Francisco, painted monumental abstractions like The Rose (1958-1966) that thematized transcendence through their facture and invocation of mystical symbolism.  While her art was marginalized by Greenbergian directives of abstract formalism, DeFeo used her “visionary” identity to address the complicated authorial agency—the simultaneous empowerment and alienation—she experienced as a woman artist in postwar California. 

Today, these “visionaries” are increasingly considered and collected.  Highlighting the careers of independent women painters, this session considers the significant role and impact of female agency in 20th century American art.


Erika Doss

Erika Doss
 Elizabeth Ferrell
Katherine Jentleson

Course dates

June 26 - 27, 2018

Christie's New York
20 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020


Erika Doss, Ph.D.,
Professor American Studies, University of Notre Dame

Paper Title: Agnes Pelton and Spiritual Modernism

Erika Doss (PhD, University of Minnesota) is a professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Her wide-ranging interests in American art and visual culture are reflected in the breadth of her publications, including Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (1991, which received the Charles C. Eldredge Prize), Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities (1995), Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image (1999), Looking at Life Magazine (editor, 2001), Twentieth-Century American Art (2002), The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a Theory of Temporary Memorials (2008), Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (2010), and American Art of the 20th-21st Centuries (2017).  The recipient of several Fulbright awards, Doss has also held fellowships at the Stanford Humanities Center, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Elizabeth Ferrell, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor, Arcadia University 

Paper Title: Putting the Vision in Visionary: Jay DeFeo’s Embodied Mysticism

Elizabeth Ferrell is Assistant Professor of Art History at Arcadia University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 2012 with a focus on modern and contemporary art.  Her publications about postwar art in the United States include essays in the journals Kunstlicht (2012) and Art History (forthcoming), and in the volumes Art After Conceptual Art (2006) and William Blake and the Age of Aquarius (forthcoming). Her book manuscript, The Ring Around The Rose: Jay DeFeo’s Circle and Artistic Collectivity in Cold War San Francisco, has been supported by fellowships from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center.


Katherine Jentleson
High Museum of Art’s Merrie

Paper Title: 'What a Farm Wife Painted’: Revisiting the Role of Anna Mary Robertson Moses in Midcentury American Art

Katherine Jentleson is the High Museum of Art’s Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art. Her recent exhibitions include Forging Connections: Ronald Lockett’s Alabama Contemporaries, A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collectionand Green Pastures: In Memory of Thornton Dial, Sr. In 2017, Jentleson spearheaded one of the most significant acquisition’s by the High’s folk and self-taught department since its establishment in 1994: 54 works by contemporary African-American artists from the Southeastern United States from the Souls Grown Deep in Foundation. Jentleson earned her Ph.D. from Duke University in 2015. Her dissertation, “Gatecrashers: The First Generation of Outsider Artists in America,” examines the rise of institutional interest in self-taught artists during the interwar years. Jentleson is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Duke University, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Archives of American Art and the Dedalus Foundation. She also contributed research and writing to exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum, the Ackland Art Museum, the Nasher Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and Prospect.3 New Orleans. Jentleson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University where she studied Comparative Literature and wrote her thesis on the Catalan painter Antonio Tàpies.

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