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The ideal modern work of art is in effect an icon of quality with a sacred value, non-religious of course. You may look and enjoy it for its art values but the painting is also looking back at you asking if your life values are equally clear.

— Excerpt from Transcendental Painting Group exhibition catalogue


Southwestern American abstract painter, Ed Garman was well known for his unique style of dynamic painting as well as his association with the Transcendental Painting Group, in which he worked alongside and befriended such artists as Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson. An extremely prolific artist, Garman dedicated his life to the study and production of non-objective, abstract painting. As a part of the Transcendental Painting Group, Garman sought to produce apolitical, non-representational paintings that would serve to transcend painting from the “appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual” [1]. In depth study of Cubist, Post-Impressionist, and Bauhaus as well as Platonic theory led Garman to an increasingly reductive approach to painting across the span of his lifetime. He worked to create paintings that he believed would not only achieve a type of spiritual beauty, but would provide the basis for an emotional exchange between viewer and painting.


Ed Garman was born on July 4, 1914 in Bridgeport, Connecticut and raised in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. After relocating to the Southwest to attend the University of New Mexico he began to develop an interest in abstraction and structural forms. Garman was immediately drawn to the work of modern European stage set designers Adolph Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, while working at the university theater. Appia and Craig’s abstract approach to stage design and lighting informed much of Garman’s early landscape, still life, and portrait painting. During the Depression, Garman worked at an archeological dig for a Works Progress Administration project in 1934 where he sorted pottery shards and developed an appreciation for the geometric forms and aesthetic of Native American craft design. His love for abstraction was further solidified after visiting a Vincent van Gogh retrospective and viewing the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky at the Art Institute of Chicago a year later. The artist began to compile his first set of abstract paintings during this time. Garman traveled abroad to Mexico where he studied murals by Diego Rivera and Clemente Orozco. Though he appreciated their abstract approach, Garman was not interested in the muralist’s nationalistic agendas or the commercial aspect of their work. Instead, he favored the less political aesthetics of traditional Native American arts. In 1938 Garman married fellow student Coreva Hanford. Hanford, a philosophy major, introduced him to Platonic philosophy, which greatly influenced his abstract approach to painting. 

In 1940 Garman traveled to New York and visited the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, where he admired and gathered inspiration from the work of Kandinsky and Rudolf Bauer [2]. Incorporating some of their philosophies into his own paintings he worked toward achieving an art of aesthetic abstraction that was not preoccupied with moral or political interests, but that instead emphasized the relationship of geometric shapes, lines, and flat color.


Despite the economic challenges of The Great Depression, Garman was excited by the possibility he saw in abstract painting and joined the Transcendental Painting Group in 1941. He was introduced to the group through William Lumpkins, a fellow New Mexico-based abstract painter, who he had met while working on a National Youth Administration Project near Jemez [3]. In the Transcendental Painting Group, he was among fellow West Coast abstract painters including Emil Bisttram, Raymond Jonson, William Lumpkins, Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce, Horrace Towner Pierce, and Canadian artist Lawren Harris. Raymond Jonson, with whom he formed a particularity close friendship, played a vital role in the encouragement of Garman’s work and ideology. 

Jonson became Garman’s mentor, and encouraged him to explore the potential for spiritual beauty in abstraction, a major tenet of the Transcendental Painting Group. Garman later became Jonson’s biographer, publishing The Art of Raymond Jonson, Painter through the University of New Mexico in 1976. The Transcendental Painting Group’s radical approach to abstraction was influenced in part by the theories and paintings of two of Garman’s favorite artists, Kandinsky and Mondrian, as well as a range of philosophical and occult teachings such as Theosophy, Zen Buddhism, and Dynamic Symmetry [4]. Their approach to art—which emphasized abstract elements such as form, color, line, and shape over representation—remained brazenly at odds with New Mexico’s popular realist style of the era, which usually featured romanticized landscapes and portraits of Native Americans [5]. 


The Transcendental Painting Group was forced to discontinue because of World War II and Garman put his artistic ambitions on hold. He was drafted into the United States Navy and relocated first to San Diego to train and later to San Francisco and served from 1943 to 1945. In the Navy, he was stationed for a time in the Martial Islands and Okinawa, Japan. Though he found little time to pick up a paintbrush, Garman was able to sustain his love of painting and develop his abstract ideologies through occasional trips to the San Francisco Museum of Art. Garman’s experiences resulted in his theory of “dynamic painting,” which argued that painted combinations of movement and stillness could evoke “empathetic responses” [6]. Regardless of Garman’s seemingly apolitical approach to his work, the violence and brutality of World War II only further convinced him of society’s abundance of waste and extreme absence of beauty—a cynical truth that only furthered his drive to create art [7].  

Garman continued painting until his death in 2004. His vision and purpose never altered. I want to create an environment in which the witness, the observer, the audience can get total emotional freedom to follow the line of the work as an environment. Garman’s paintings can be found in several prominent public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.


Written by Lauren A. Zelaya

[1] Tiska Blankenship. Vision and Spirit: The Transcendental Painting Group, Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico Art Museums. 1997, page 3.
[2] Lorenz, Marianne. Theme and Improvisation: Kandinsky & The American Avant-Garde 1912-1950. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1992, page 184.
[3] Ibid, Page 182.
[4] Tiska Blankenship. Vision and Spirit: The Transcendental Painting Group, Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico Art Museums. 1997, page 4.
[5] Michael Koster. “Taking the High Road.” Art & Antiques 21, no 9 (October 1998), page 95.
[6] Virginia M. Mecklenburg. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection, American Abstraction: 1930-1945. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, page 72
[7] Ed Garman and Derrick Cartwright. Oral history interview with Ed Garman, 1998 Mar. 25-30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.