kaufmann house palm springs

The Land of Light

For a century and counting, artists have come to the desert to capture its atmospheric glow.

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

kaufmann house palm springs

Julius Shulman’s view of the Richard Neutra–designed Kaufmann House in Palm Springs.

A golden glow washes over the late-afternoon desert, bathing the landscape and cuing us for the spectacle soon to sweep across the sky: an ethereal banding of colors ranging from deep purple to radiant pink that lulls us into dusk. My partner, Edgar, and I climb onto an elevated boulder off one of our favorite trails in Joshua Tree National Park and watch, silently, as the day dissolves, our muscles ease, and our minds wander.

“It’s a John Hilton sky,” he says, breaking the quiet to draw a comparison to the late artist’s luminous paintings of desert landscapes, this one with cotton candy–pink clouds reminiscent of the 1964 oil “Desert Fiesta.” We often call out the names of early landscape painters whose work comes to mind as we take in views on hikes and drives in the low and high deserts — Fernand Lungren’s unmistakable glow; Lockwood de Forest’s muted, moody color palette; James Swinnerton’s sun-kissed ironwood and smoke trees.

Starting in the early 20th century, these and other painters began a trajectory of artists using different media to represent the boundless landscape and the distinctive light of the California desert. They were interested in the optical and perceptive qualities, naturally, but also in deriving meaning and stimulating emotional responses.

In his seminal book Our Araby, author, traveler, and photographer J. Smeaton Chase asserts, “Nowhere as on the desert will you experience what I may best call the spirituality of color, beauty in sunset hues so extreme that it affects one with a sense of pathos, even solemnity, like the innocent blue of childhood’s eyes.”


John Hilton learned to paint from the top artists of the day — James Swinnerton, Maynard Dixon, Clyde Forsythe — who often gathered at his shop. “Spring Blessings” (1962), from the Palm Springs Art Museum collection, shows Hilton’s distinctive sun-kissed glow.

The landscape painters, working en plein air, positioned themselves to quickly capture this fleeting sensation, using loose brushstrokes and breaking forms into small bits of color, before the light changed. One of the earliest and most significant figures, Swinnerton, who came to Palm Springs in 1903, was known to plant his easel in sandy washes where he could capture the sunlight as it delicately grazed the fluffy purple blooms of winsome smoke trees. Another well-known painter, Gordon Coutts, stood out for his saturated colors and depictions of that golden hue washing over the sand, mountains, and sky.

Agnes Pelton moved to Cathedral City in 1932 with a modernist approach to the land and light. Although she painted traditional landscapes to earn money, she was a visionary symbolist painter, groundbreaking for her transcendentalist canvases that reflect her spiritual reality. The inner visions and emotions she experienced during moments of meditative stillness, especially while in her garden contemplating twilight and the starry night sky, would manifest as vaporous shapes and colors in her paintings.


In the painting “Messengers” (1932), Agnes Pelton combines light, land, and her inner visions.

Indeed, as the art world turned toward abstraction, the desert light muscled its way in. Of Southern California’s midcentury hard-edge painters, aka the “abstract classicists,” who depicted the landscape in a reductive style, Helen Lundeberg was most direct in her representation, applying a softer, nuanced palette to an almost-surreal effect. Eva Slater, who studied with Lundeberg and her artist husband, Lorser Feitelson, also bridged landscape painting and hard-edge abstraction in works like “San Jacinto Mountains” (1960).

In the late ’60s and ’70s, Southern California’s light and space artists turned to questions of perception, cleverly directing natural light and embedding artificial light into reflective, translucent, and transparent materials such as resins and plastics to create situations to heighten our sensory awareness. James Turrell, the 79-year-old light and space pioneer known for his “skyspace” installations, has spent the last four decades carving a celestial observatory and immersive light exhibition into an ancient volcanic cinder cone in Northern Arizona. He describes the site, which he named Roden Crater, as “a gateway to the contemplation of light, time, and landscape.”

Closer to home, in 2013, Palm Desert–based artist Phillip K. Smith III transformed a 70-year-old ramshackle homestead cabin in Joshua Tree into an ephemeral monument to the desert light. “Lucid Stead” was a weathered wood shelter with polished mirrors replacing the door, windows, and every other horizontal beam to reflect the landscape by day and project fields of color by night. Smith III is the subject of a solo exhibition this winter at Palm Springs Art Museum, which will honor him at its annual gala.

Photographers of all kinds — architectural, landscape, conceptual — also obsess over the desert light. Stephen H. Willard, who settled in Palm Springs in 1919, spent a couple of decades capturing the pristine landscape in its most seductive and compelling light. He is often referred to as the desert’s Ansel Adams for the sense of longing and desire he created in his atmospheric photographs.

This is time-tested terrain for artists of all disciplines, including writers and musicians.

Photographer Stephen H. Willard seizes the moment to capture “San Jacinto from Seven Palms” (1924).

“The desert offered the tonal vocabulary that Willard sought for his black-and-white photographs: sharp contrasts of light, expansive uninterrupted horizons, folded mountain ranges, layered ridge lines, and long shadows created by the morning and afternoon sun,” says Christine Giles, senior curator at Palm Springs Art Museum, the repository for Willard’s archive. “Once he found his subject, he might wait for hours for the correct light and conditions to capture the image he wanted.”


John Divola photographed Isolated Houses in the High Desert.

Similarly, Julius Shulman needed the sun perfectly positioned to illuminate his photographs of midcentury modern architecture in and around Palm Springs, including the Richard Neutra–designed Kaufmann House — a black-and-white image in which the glow of dusk emphasizes the clean, structural lines against the natural contours of the San Jacinto Mountains.

From 1996 to 1998, John Divola, a conceptual artist drawn to the vernacular architecture of the homestead cabins in Twentynine Palms and Wonder Valley, photographed a series called Isolated Houses. “I was seduced by the light and started photographing this series of arbitrarily dispersed ‘jackrabbit’ houses,” he says. “There’s this notion of the melancholic, but my interest was existential — the cube on this seemingly infinite desert landscape — and in creating iconographies of desire, to be alone or go ‘outside’ or ‘beyond.’ It was by far the most enjoyable body of work I’ve done.”

This is time-tested terrain for artists of all disciplines, including writers and musicians. The best way to enjoy their work is to first experience the desert as Edgar and I do: out on the land, observing. Only then can you fully appreciate the many ways artists harness and redeploy its mighty glow.


Phillip K. Smith III created “Lucid Stead” (2013) as an ethereal monument to the desert light.