Erika Doss’s Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and Religion

“Playa Nights” by Ross Barringer.

Erika Doss. Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2023.

Because modern American art was dismissed by journalists and politicians as the irrational output of a “lunatic fringe,” its promoters have hesitated to emphasize its emotional and speculative dimensions. But many American moderns shared the conviction of Wassily Kandinsky, for whom, as Erika Doss puts it, modern art was meant to be “spiritually affective, embodying wonder, awe, and mystery” (27–8). In Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and Religion, Doss recovers and insists on the role religion played for modernism in the American visual arts. Through case studies of four distinct artists (Joseph Cornell, Mark Tobey, Agnes Pelton, and Andy Warhol), Doss argues for a shared ethos of “spiritual moderns,” her term for  “artists whose methods and understandings of modernism were informed by their religious beliefs and experiences, who simultaneously explored and also questioned those beliefs on critical and self-conscious terms” (6). The wager of Spiritual Moderns is that “reckoning with religion yields new and different insights about modern American art: how Joseph Cornell’s conceptual art affirmed the reality of spirit in Christian Science, how Mark Tobey’s ‘white writing’ echoed the ‘revelation writing’ of nineteenth-century Bahá’í calligraphers, how Agnes Pelton’s canvases mediated her interests in New Thought and occulture, and how Andy Warhol’s Pop portraits were inspired by Byzantine Catholic icons and critiqued Catholic Church intolerance” (35).

It would be wrong, Doss suggests, to think of the modern as a secular regime. Indeed, the very modernity of the religions that these four artists explored is reason enough to expand the art historical story of American modernism. Cornell’s Christian Science began with Mary Eddy Baker in the 1870s; Tobey’s Bahá’í began in the 1840s; the “occulture” informing Pelton’s work, whether New Thought or Theosophy, are both products of the early 20th century. Warhol is a special case, for even if he identified as a Byzantine Catholic, the religion that he was truly an adherent of, indeed a prophet for, was the very American one of “Pop” with its cult of celebrity and consumer goods in the postwar era.

Aesthetically, these artists employed “new techniques of collage, assemblage, overlapping, frenzied pacing, spatial flattening, inconsistent light sources, spontaneity, and highly saturated colors to convey their sense of modernism’s fragmented, uncertain, inconsistent, and unstable conditions” (12). These qualities, as Doss persuasively shows throughout the book, provide a usable parallel between aesthetics and the syncretic, eclectic, “collage”-like nature of the spiritual systems that were mutually inspiring each other in the artworks under discussion.  As an ethos, “[its] integrative mode was marked by a reliance on paradox (the unity of seeming opposites), ambivalence (the fusion of incongruous feelings), and dynamism (a focus on fluidity, change, and impermanence)” (12). If it appears that such a movement or concept is potentially too capacious, Doss admits that “modernism was, of course, inherently inconsistent and uncertain. There was no single style or tone” (12). This allows for the spiritual eclecticism of Doss’s quartet to exist comfortably under a single rubric while simultaneously revealing it to be quite unwieldy.

Doss’s strongest case study is Agnes Pelton, whose Divinity Lotus (1929) graces the cover. Pelton falls into that contentious and intriguing category of the “rediscovered” artist, primarily stemming from her prominent inclusion in LACMA’s The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, a paradigmatic 1986 exhibition for reorienting the art historical conversation regarding spirituality. Drawing on Christopher Partridge’s hermeneutic of “occulture” to encompass the overlapping “religious sources, beliefs, and practices she explored and absorbed” (140), Doss convincingly outlines that the influence of New Thought was just as strong upon Pelton as a system like Theosophy, which is most associated with her work. Unlike Theosophy, with a vast network of cultural influence and a founder worthy of a prestige television treatment like Helena Blavatsky, New Thought and its primary leader Emma Curtis Hopkins (1849-1925) has largely dimmed in the cultural imaginary, even the “occultural” one. Doss reminds us that Hopkins “promoted mind cure as the path to health, happiness, and direct communication with God” (154-55), and connects this later on with Pelton’s sense that her “abstractions did not simply ‘represent’ her spiritual beliefs but were animated…with the ‘emotional power’ they engaged” (158-59). This is a very provocative way to consider the affective encounter with, and experience of, art. It suggests that in the triangulation of art, affect, and spirituality that the case of an Agnes Pelton represents, there is indeed much new knowledge for scholars to generate from the “rediscovery” of our recent past.

In contrast, the weakest chapter of Spiritual Moderns is no doubt on Andy Warhol, for his blending of capitalist aesthetics with the iconographic Byzantine-Catholicism in which he was raised has been examined by art historians for many decades now. Doss is perhaps overly generous in her interpretation of Warhol as a kind of covert activist for change within American Catholicism; what the images tend to reveal is a jester enamored by the iconography of the court. The most fascinating portion of the Warhol chapter is when Doss draws our attention to the American Catholic nun Sister Corita Kent. As an artist and a consecrated nun working in the same period, she deserves a case study wholly devoted to her and what her work could tell us about Doss’s titular category (not to mention the “canon” of American modernism).

Uniformly in these case studies, Doss goes back and forth on whether it is more important to understand these artists as being informed by spiritual seeking or to read them as “American artists who were both modern and religious” (4). Semantically, Doss insists that her subjects are “modern American artists who were religious, not religious artists who lived in modern times…. [T]o be a ‘religious artist’ is to illustrate, affirm, and proselytize on behalf of certain religions” (5). This definitional nuance is worth contemplating, because while the latter category is easily understood where a system of direct patronage from a particular religion is involved, there is a question throughout Doss’s case studies related to that triad of illustrating, affirming, and proselytizing on the part of these artists. Take, for example, her rebuttal of critics who (in her view) over-emphasize the Christian Science of Joseph Cornell: “such statements overreach. Cornell was first and foremost a modern artist. His religious beliefs, including the reality of spirit and the promise of divine healing, guided his choice of subjects and the media he worked with, the methods he developed, and the modern art he made” (5). What the semantic tension overshadows is a more nuanced interpretation of the affective qualities of the art—and how this ultimately creates something “modern” on both the aesthetic and the spiritual levels.

Future scholarship might invert Doss’s approach by examining what those inside these religions and spiritual movements thought about modern artists such as Pelton or Tobey engaging their metaphysics and theology in their artworks. But perhaps most importantly, future research might further mine the “spiritual” not just as a religious concept, but as an affective concept. Doss’s reevaluation of the spiritual coincides with the rise of affect theory across the humanities, and her intervention at first appears to be to confront critics who have long been phobic of both religion and feeling alike. But a richer engagement with affect theory is wanting in her case studies, which are biographical readings of the art with no doubt invaluable insights from cultural history, primarily of the arts and of religion. What can be gained by adding the further element of contemporary affect theory and the insights contained within this ever-expanding body of scholarship? Furthermore, what might come from using the titular concept of “spiritual moderns” to examine a wider array of art-makers than those commonly grouped under “American Modernism”? The meeting place of the image, the senses, and the spirit creates an echo that has the potential to dramatically illumine our bewildering contemporary moment through the courses previously charted by those like Joseph Cornell, Agnes Pelton, Mark Tobey, and Andy Warhol.

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