The drive from Palm Springs to Rancho Mirage isn’t what you’d describe as scenic: The landscape shifts from explosively verdant flora and palm tree colonnades to tan stucco boxes, asphalt, and scrub. But Neville Wakefield, the artistic director of the Desert X biennial, opening February 25 and on view through April, wasn’t necessarily looking for pretty.
On a hot day last fall, he and the biennial’s executive director, Elizabeta Betinski, pulled up to a hard, flat square of earth the size of a football field, bordered by concrete dividers. “This looks promising!” exclaimed Wakefield cheerfully, stepping into the sun. The land, part of the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, which is owned by the local Cahuilla Indian tribe, was a potential site for a piece by the Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, whose concept involved fragmented text, rendered in neon and positioned inside the excavated desert floor. The piece would be best seen from above, and the casino’s 16-story hotel tower seemed to offer an ideal vantage point.
Desert X, an ambitious project involving more than 15 site-specific works installed across the entire Coachella Valley, from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Salton Sea, is just the latest cultural happening to light up this territory two hours east of Los Angeles. Since the early 20th century, the California desert, with its endless vistas, primordial geology, and extreme weather conditions, has been a canvas upon which artists working in all media have projected and played out their fantasies.
Hollywood stars discovered Palm Springs in the 1920s, when contract players were not permitted to travel more than 100 miles from a film set at any given time; modernist architects like Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Albert Frey thrived there in the ’40s. In the ’60s and ’70s, musicians like Gram Parsons and Keith Richards communed with the cosmos in Joshua Tree National Park. (Parsons would die, of a drug overdose, in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn.) In more recent decades, all manner of visual artists, from Ed Ruscha to the Haas Brothers, have gravitated to the high desert in numbers, drawn by the open space, the solitude, and, not least, the affordable real estate, in the form of homesteader cabins built on five-acre parcels that had been given away in the ’40s, in an attempt to populate the area. The fact that the government was offering land to anyone willing to live there underscores just how inhospitable the terrain can be—which, depending on one’s motivation for being in the desert, can prove liberating or crippling.
Andrea Zittel, who in 2000 pioneered the current wave of artists with the purchase of her first five-acre plot and cabin, had long experimented with living systems and social structures in her art practice. She was also, as the granddaughter of ranchers in the Imperial Valley south of Joshua Tree, “hardwired for the desert.” She named her property and “life-project” A-Z West and soon after launched High Desert Test Sites, a semiannual curated program of exuberant, immersive artworks and experiences around the Joshua Tree area that is an acknowledged inspiration for Desert X.
Zittel plans to open her appointment-only 56-acre compound—which has grown to include guest residences and a hilltop studio with a wood shop, weaving looms, and kilns—to the public during the biennial. But on the day I met her, Zittel’s attention was focused on more-immediate domestic concerns. One key goal is to make A-Z West self-sustaining by turning out products like ceramic bowls, à la Arcosanti, the Arizona architecture lab that crafts and sells bronze bells. She’s also been spending time alone in the tiny, off-the-grid cabins in nearby Wonder Valley, which were the focus of her recent solo show at Andrea Rosen Gallery, in New York. Zittel has outfitted those dwellings with minimalist platforms for living—sculptural furniture that brings to mind 3-D Piet Mondrian paintings—but has added few modern conveniences.
“I’ve always wanted to live with no power and no water,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s been really fun.” On several summer nights, she was forced to sleep in 118-degree heat with the doors closed because her dogs were chasing coyotes. “It sucked,” she said. “But it wasn’t impossible. Just the fact that I could do it made me really happy.” She shrugged. “I like when climates fight back.”
It’s this submission to nature that those who truly embrace life in the desert seem to have in common. And, to a lesser degree, that’s probably what the Coachella concertgoer or the day-pass visitor to Joshua Tree National Park also experiences: the awareness, however fleeting, of being part of something bigger, something eternal.
Lily Stockman, a painter, first saw the Mojave Desert 10 years ago when her husband, Peter Brooks, a Marine, was stationed in Twentynine Palms. She encountered an environment that was wild, difficult, and even “punishing.” But, she said, “it blew my mind…It just felt like a portal into another world.”
Following Brooks’s several deployments to Iraq, the couple found a homestead cabin of their own, painted pink and situated between two flat-top buttes. At certain times of the year, Stockman said, “you can stand at sunset on the lip of the wash and the shadow of the butte goes across your body and down the wash…There’s something incredibly satisfying about feeling like you’re privy to natural phenomena, but it happens every night. I think that’s the most beautiful idea for a painting that I can come up with.”
Stockman’s abstract paintings, most recently exhibited in a solo show at Gavlak Gallery, in Los Angeles, are simple yet luscious, with thick, sensuous, curved shapes in intense, vibrating hues. The work feels symbolic, organic, and of the desert in the same way that Agnes Martin’s does—pared to its essentials. Ironically, as her linen canvases get bigger, Stockman finds herself doing more painting in her studio in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A. than in the desert. “There’s something really nice about spending clean, unadulterated time out there and storing up all those little nuts and bringing them back to the studio,” she reflected.
With its growing creative community, the desert has also become a place to engage socially, rather than just escape. Bonfires and group dinners happen frequently, and Stockman often runs printing workshops on the weekends with her sister, Hopie, with whom she cofounded Block Shop, a textile company whose elegant wares are hand-printed in India. “It’s wonderful because the community is so robust,” Stockman noted. “But I think there are people who miss the old days, when it was a little more rough-and-tumble.”
The sculptor Alma Allen might fall into that camp. A forager by nature, he was led to the region 20 years ago by the old mineral databases and mining claims he had studied, hoping to discover abandoned marble quarries. His initial urge was simple: get closer to the materials. “And I wanted to get away from crowds,” Allen said. “I’m sure it’s a universal trait of people who come out here.” He paused. “Although maybe not anymore. It’s getting kind of busy.”
When Allen purchased his site on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, the main draws were views that would never change and space—lots of it, enough for a house and a studio, cranes, drying kilns, the giant robotic arm that carves some of his larger-scale works, and acquisitions like the 80,000 pounds of walnut trees he recently purchased from an orchard in Chico that was being cleared, “which will take me a couple years or more to make things with.”
With two fall solo shows behind him—a Blum & Poe New York exhibition focused on stone featuring strange, opulent shapes in amethyst and lapis, and a Chicago show of newer, large-scale bronzes and gnarled-and-knotty-wood forms that were simultaneously earthy and extraterrestrial—Allen was contemplating his next move. “My art has benefited a lot from being here,” he acknowledged. But with the scale of his sculptures continuing to expand and neighbors in his relatively ritzy environs (known in some circles as “the Boulders”) complaining about the sound of chain saws on Sundays, “I might have outgrown being able to work.”
The paradox of freedom in the desert is one of the ideas that Zittel has been turning over in her mind, witnessing how the newest crew of wealthy urbanites tends to create desert fantasy “bubbles” that replicate the very conditions they left behind. This is a thought echoed by Wakefield, and it’s in particularly stark relief in the Palm Springs area, where the architecture and landscaping are intended to, first and foremost, keep the desert out. “Although it’s a boundless space, it’s all about boundaries,” Wakefield observed.
The artist Glenn Kaino will exploit those boundaries in his Desert X contribution, Line in the Sand, conceived as a window framing the border between a lush green golf course and the barren desert beyond, the sand of an infinite hourglass falling between the two. A California beach kid, Kaino now shares two desert homes—a Twin Palms midcentury and a Joshua Tree geodesic dome—with his wife, the fashion designer Corey Lynn Calter. Sand has figured prominently in his practice since he created an Emerald City sand castle for the 2004 Whitney Biennial. “For me, it’s locational as well as spiritual and philosophical,” he said.
Phillip K. Smith III is one of the few Desert X artists who grew up in the Coachella Valley, and he has been “happily steeped” in the environment since he returned from a stint on the East Coast in 2000. “I was feeling claustrophobic because of the trees,” he said without irony. “I needed to see the horizon line and my brown mountains.”
Probably best known for Lucid Stead, a mirrored high-desert cabin that appeared to be transparent from certain perspectives, Smith considers himself a light artist. While his debt to James Turrell is evident, he cited a more primary influence: the sunset he stares into daily as he drives home from his studio wondering, “How can I get that perfect gradient?”
For Desert X, he’s creating two 600-foot-long arcs of mirrored posts that will form “a space of reflection within the middle of the desert that is composed of the desert.” At the root of his projects, many of which are public, is the desire to create memories and experiences people can share. “Something that makes it worth saying, ‘We gotta come back at noon, and we should also hang out at midnight,’ ” he elaborated.
This seems perfectly aligned with Wakefield’s interest in taking art beyond white-cube institutions, where one can get caught up in “figuring out what looks good above the couch.” In the vastness of the desert, art has a “quality of encounter,” Wakefield observed. “It might as well be a UFO.”