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  • by Jennifer Gunlock, Collections Manager

Palm Springs: An Oasis of Inspiration

California has always inspired artists with its warm light and myriad of landscapes. One particular California painter’s destination is in and around Palm Springs. One example of note is our most recent acquisition, Desert Gold by Anna Hills (1882-1930), a solitary scene at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. Our early CA painters gravitated to this place of extreme contrasts in the winter season when the snow-capped mountains framed the warm desert floor. And the fascination with wildflower superblooms is nothing new: painters such as Granville Redmond, John Gamble, and John Frost were known to depend on those blooms for their primary painting revenue.

Our Frost painting, Tahquitz Canyon, is displayed at the Jonathan Town Club next to another desert scene by fellow artist Alson S. Clark. In both paintings the artists achieved that alarmingly vivid, retina-burning sunlight that can only be experienced in the desert. In Clark’s piece, the blue mountain presents a refreshingly cool backdrop against the hot sand in the foreground, and its flowering bushes blaze like wildfire.

The lure of this region’s harsh beauty is not restricted to the plein air painters, nor to history. Cathedral City-based Modernist painter Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) said of the area, “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.” While she also painted en plein air, from which she primarily made her living, her abstracted landscapes more directly spoke of her spiritual philosophy. Her paintings would depict glowing light in form of sun or stars, and ethereal luminous veils contrast against infinitely deep night sky. An exhibition of her extraordinary work, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, is currently on view at Phoenix Art Museum through September 8th and will later travel to the Palm Springs Art Museum.

A new biennial art event Desert X has sprung up in the Coachella Valley in 2017, and this year it saw a spike in art tourism. The project invites artists to make installations on site in direct relationship with the environment and that engage viewers’ awareness to the local ecosystem and the region’s social/political/economic issues. In 2017 artist Doug Aitken built a memorably iconic work, Mirage, a wooden shed partially covered in mirror, so that much of the building seemingly dissolves into the landscape. This visually breathtaking contrast between structure and landscape evokes the both the theme of the human mark on the landscape and our dream of the untamed desert.

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