Art of the City
Leonore Annenberg (with shovel) at the groundbreaking for the Museum Way building.
Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives
Moving seamlessly between art and design, Jim Isermann has a symbiotic relationship with Palm Springs, drawing from its bright midcentury sensibilities and imagining innovative ways to express its spirit and aesthetics.
Isermann, who lives in a 1962 Donald Wexler–designed prefabricated steel house with a collection of 1950s and ’60s furniture, was reaching back into West Coast modernism long before the Palm Springs architecture and design renaissance made it cool again. His early work was mostly abstract, sometimes functional and always handmade with minimalist simplicity, Bauhaus craftsmanship and utility, and Pop art’s mass-production ethos.
Colorful, algorithmic, and sometimes futuristic patterns define much of his labor-intensive work in a variety of media — from vinyl decals to paintings to vacuum-formed ABS plastic panels that comprise site-specific installations such as the bright yellow 2006 installation at Palm Springs Art Museum. Following the stairs, and covering the adjacent wall from the mezzanine to top floor, it consists of 235 undulating panels of painted, vacuum-formed styrene.
Isermann — whose work boldly and unabashedly intersects with design, and exhibits internationally — demonstrates how profoundly fine art has evolved in Palm Springs. Generations of artists worked here before him — painters who came to depict the natural beauty of the mountains and untouched swaths of raw desert, often en plein air, or outside rather than in a studio.
Creating an Artists’ Colony
Anthropologists estimate the first settlers arrived in the Palm Springs area 10,000 years ago. Until the early 1900s, the Cahuilla Indians created most of the area’s artistic output, particularly fine basketry crafted with grass, either twined or coiled, and decorated in red, black, and dark yellow. Their earliest graphic devices included flowers, eagles, and lightning. These functional vessels ultimately became a medium of expression for the Cahuilla people. Exhibitions during the 75-year life of Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum) and Agua Caliente Cultural Museum keep the community grounded to this heritage.
In the 1840s, topographical illustrators captured the vastness of the landscape, followed in 1853 by a U.S. government survey party mapping Palm Springs and its natural hot springs mineral pool (now the site of the Spa Resort Casino). By 1872, Palm Springs had become the stop between Los Angeles and Prescott, Ariz., on the Bradshaw Stage Coach Line. And Southern Pacific Railroad began rolling through the desert in 1877. Incidentally, the first permanent Anglo settler, Judge John Guthrie McCallum, bought land from Southern Pacific, and built his home in the area in 1884. The McCallum Adobe remains the oldest standing building in Palm Springs.
To encourage travel, the railroad allowed artists to ride in exchange for their paintings and drawings of the scenery at various stopping points — pictures of Western landscapes that would entice travelers to explore life beyond the Mississippi River.
By the 1920s, American and European Impressionist painters who had plied their trade on the East Coast took to the rails in search of fresh sources of inspiration — and a healthier climate — in Southern California’s deserts, mountains, canyons, forests, and coastlines.
They shaped a regional style reflective of the distinctive light and shadows of the land.
Palm Springs played a significant role during this period. Although it enjoys less fanfare than the art colonies of Carmel or Laguna Beach, Palm Springs and the surrounding desert areas resonate in important private and public collections.
“California artists saw the [Impressionist] style as bright, colorful, and upbeat in feeling, appropriate for interpreting the state’s attitude, color, and sunlight,” observes Nancy Moure, author of the definitive California Art: 450 Years of Painting & Other Media.
Carl Eytel, a revered desert painter of the time, had read about the American West in library books in his native Germany. While working on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, he frequently visited the Mojave and Colorado deserts, with illustrator Jimmy Swinnerton.
Laguna Beach artists came to the desert in the 1920s to paint the sand dunes, palm canyons, rock formations, and spring flowers. About the same time, photographer Stephen H. Willard moved to Palm Springs, and exhibited and sold his landscape photography at Palm Canyon Trading Post and Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn, Palm Springs’ earliest gallery.
Artist John Paul Burnham, the son of Chicago-based architect Daniel Burnham (of World’s Fair and skyscraper fame) started an artists’ colony on a large property in Palm Springs in the late ’20s. Regular guests included Eytel, Swinnerton, John W. Hilton, Maynard Dixon, and Clyde Forsythe. Works by these artists are included in museums worldwide. The massive, historic compound is now available as a luxury vacation rental, known as Colony 29.
Painters Paul Grimm (who had painted Hollywood movie sets), John Frost, Alson Skinner Clark, and Gordon Coutts built studios here after being seduced by the landscape, especially the springtime wildflowers. They hoped to draw inspiration from the scenery and moods, and tap the area’s regenerative qualities. The clean air, for example, helped placate their tuberculosis, the epidemic du jour.
The proliferation of their imagery helped propel Palm Springs into a coveted destination.
From the late 1930s to mid-1960s, the proliferation of conceptual and abstract art eclipsed plein air in popularity, though artists working in the genre have retained a robust audience for almost 100 years. The modern period, roughly from the 1920s through the ’50s, offered daring innovation. Some artists, most notably Agnes Pelton, who lived in Cathedral City, adapted and thrived working in abstraction.
Pelton donated one of her smoke tree paintings to raise funds to establish Desert Art Center in 1950. The center was ground zero for many landscape painters whose work has become highly collectible — including Swinnerton, Hilton, Fred Penney, and Wilton McCoy. Situated in the former Frances Stevens School near the corner of Alejo Road and Palm Canyon Drive, the center now operates as an artists’ co-op and gallery.
Palm Springs also had galleries exhibiting art of international importance, most notably B. Lewin Galleries, a leading dealer of Latin American art that moved to the desert in 1984 from Beverly Hills. The gallery introduced the village of Palm Springs to icons such as Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. Paul Lewin, now a city councilman, continued the family tradition as owner of Adagio Galleries in downtown Palm Springs.
Up With the Art Museum
Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum) was founded in 1938 at La Plaza in downtown Palm Springs. Natural science exhibits, lectures, and hiking excursions dominated the institution’s programming, which also included exhibits of Cahuilla Indian artifacts and photography.
In 1958, a new museum building opened on Tahquitz Canyon Way, and fine art gained a greater measure of importance. One of the most impressive exhibitions here was a 1964 show of paintings by Hans Burkhardt, a Swiss artist widely credited for bringing Abstract Expressionism to Los Angeles from New York.
The current E. Stewart Williams–designed building on Museum Drive opened in 1976, with works by Alexander Calder and Milton Avery — all donated by patrons — already in the permanent collection. The opening exhibitions at the new space included NASA photography and pioneering optical and kinetic works by the Israeli artist Yaacov Agam.
An exhibition of paintings by Swinnerton, the plein air artist and illustrator, celebrated the landscape tradition of early Palm Springs.
Interior designer and art collector Steve Chase donated 132 works of contemporary art — and $1.5 million for a new wing to exhibit them. Williams designed the space, which opened in 1996.
Less than a decade later, the museum dropped its natural science program to focus on fine art. Major renovations, and even bigger donations of art, transformed the institution, which has also sharpened its programming with nationally significant exhibitions.
In addition to opening a satellite exhibition and education space in Palm Desert, the museum has purchased the Williams’ 1960 Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan building on South Palm Canyon Drive. It will reopen next fall as the Architecture and Design Center at the Edwards Harris Pavilion.
With a revitalized art museum, galleries opening in the Uptown Design District, a fresh generation of artists inspired by the light and land, and the 3-year-old Palm Springs Fine Art Fair — the February event where about 60 galleries from around the country exhibit art from around the world — the art scene in Palm Springs looks healthier than ever.