It's no news that the holidays are stressful. So when you're hiding in your childhood bedroom, shivering because your dad won't turn the thermostat up higher than 60 degrees (he has decided to "go green" this year), close your eyes and escape to your inner desert. A warm, empty, paradise where no one will ask why you don't have a boyfriend yet. Come with writer Angella D'Avignon as she praises the desert saints who have gone before us and in turn, helps you find the Marfa in your mind.
The desert is the great retreat for the lower half of the West Coast. We go there to seek quiet, to party, to work. The desert absorbs sound as though it were a vortex; what you do disappears there, fades like a mirage. Everything about the desert, from its climate to its permanent residents, is distinctive. Its sunbleached aesthetics, the mysticism, the pastels, the animal skulls and cactuses have captured the imagination of artists for decades. Whether it's the brutality of the Mojave, the magic of the high desert, or the blazing sunsets of the Southwest, the desert has long served as both home and muse to many a painter. Here are some examples of the desert aesthetic by the hands of some mystical women artists.
Agnes Pelton was a German-American modernist painter. She made portraits of Pueblo Indians, desert landscapes and still lifes. Her work evolved through three distinct phases: her early "Imaginative Paintings", portraits of the American Southwest natives and residents, and finally, her spiritual abstracted works (my personal fav). Pelton had only planned to visit the California desert as a vacation but ended up staying for 30 years. Known as the Mystic Genius of Cat City (um, yes), Pelton's later paintings combined desert sunset visuals with alchemical symbolism. She lived in the high desert in Cathedral City, California until her death at age 79, in 1961.
Another Agnes, Agnes Martin, moved to the desert after ditching city life in New York. A strong proponent for retreat, Martin advocated strongly for silence and solitude believing that living outside society was the most effective way to maintain one's imagination and originality. To that end, her paintings focus on the act of looking and encourage a meditative state. Minimalist and muted, Martin's paintings are huge but pack intricate detail despite looking nearly blank. Martin lived out her studio days in Taos, New Mexico, the historic center for the Transcendental Painting Group. She died in Taos in 2004 at the age of 94.
Other notable desert women include Susan Rothenberg, who lives in New Mexico and is famous for her crudely painted horses. And how could we forget the inimitable Georgia O'Keefe, who is famous for her oil paintings of the natural world up close including New Mexico landscapes, shells, and enlarged, uh, flowers.
All four women and their respective work were major forces in developing what we now understand as the desert aesthetic by borrowing from the landscape and reinterpreting its emotional impact.
Header image by Kevin Russ.
Here's some other great examples of desert-inspired art: