"Old men ought to be explorers"

T. S. Eliot - Four Quartets


Salton Sea Saga

Early January, 2010. I headed into the Mojave Desert - east from San Diego - looking for solitude and a kind of art you can’t find in museums. All along the rift valley of the great San Andreas fault I reasoned I would find a dialog between man and nature. Heading first for the Salton Sea, I guessed it would be about decay - a desert oasis gone to ruin. And that’s what I found. But gradually, as I moved south, then north, the dialog took on unexpected shapes that challenged my understanding of what art is.



The Great Salton Sea

The outwash of the Colorado River

it fills and dries

with every turn of the tap

in Los Angeles



"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do." Wendell Berry



Salton Sea Beach and the Marina used to be part of a thriving development

until too many taps were turned.



"Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed."
Wendell Berry


Salt on the stakes show

how high the sea once was.


it is a pathetic place - but true to its history

and beautiful in its banality


Foundation - House With A View

Salton City Airport

I didn't see any airplanes





The Force of Nature

At the southern end of the great Salton Sea - thermal generators tap energy

from the arteries of our planet...

these power plants sit astride the great

San Andreas fault.



and to the north - outside Barstow - giant mirrors gather rays from the sun


The mirrors click as they expand and contract

and energy seems to burn on their surfaces...





There was movement in the stillness.

I heard it in my motel room in Westmorland at the sea’s southern extension. I went out to find the source and discovered a kinetic art

created for an audience of one.



trains run through the desert - day and night

restless and relentless

in all that quiet...






and trucks...






Salvation Mountain

In the desert near the southern tip of the Salton Sea
Leonard Knight spent twenty years building Salvation Mountain
to celebrate his redeemer...


Salvation Mountain is made of hay bails and adobe
covered with many coats of paint





Inside the mountain, tunnels are supported by old trees and columns of discarded tires


Salvation Mountain. Is it art? Certainly. As much as a cathedral or Stonehenge or a Copan temple. Not just art in form and shape - but also in one man’s message


"When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it."

Wendell Berry




Slab City

An abandoned marine base - neighbor to Salvation Mountain - where squatters have taken up residence on the old foundations of barraks and offices.




Slab City residents have built a radio station,
a library and their own night club






Heading North

I continued north - up the east coast of the Salton Sea - and found a landscape of abandoned dreams

"I walk this ground

of which dead men

and women I have loved

are part, as they

are part of me."

Wendell Barry - poem: "In Rain"




Bombay Beach on the east side of the Salton Sea


I found a shirt that had been left in the ruins of a house site

and saw something that told a story...

do you see the hand?



decaying plywood


abandoned garage

Harper Dry Lake - Lockhart

west of Barstow







Abandoned Agricultural Inspection Station

under Orion

and outside of Yermo







Joshua Tree

more than a National Park

but it's that too

"How long can I go without going into town? I can live for a week with a dozen eggs and a case of Coke and a bottle of Scotch."

Jack Pierson - artist



Desert Art


The desert attracts pariahs, misfits, criminals, depresives and their opposites - optimists, philanthropists, artists, oddballs... The desert filters out the middle of the social spectrum - leaving behind only the extremes of human personality.

"It's like there aren't any rules here, just survival.
I go hiking every day up on the hill. And if I need to
think I rake rocks." Thom Merrick - artist.


High Desert Test Sites


Artists are attracted to Joshua Tree where a loose-knit cadre of artists - called High Desert Test Sites - stage a yearly tour of open studios.

The Salton Sea landscape expresses an unconscious art experiment - but here in Joshua Tree I came across a self conscious one where artists blend their message with nature’s.

"It's a place to do experimental artwork, on a really low budget, that doesn't belong to anyone, that just deteriorates and blows away."

Andrea Zittel



I got there at the wrong time - no open studios - but I found a map to installations in the desert. I followed it to these places...

The Julia who created this piece is, I assume, Julia Scher.

High Desert Test Sites is a little low on specificity





High Desert Test Sites goals - among others:

"To challenge traditional conventions of ownership, property and patronage. Most projects will ultimately belong to no one, and they are intended to melt back into the landscape as new ones emerge."

"To 'insert' art directly into a life, a landscape or a community where it will sink or swim based on a different set of criteria than those of art world institutions and galleries."


High Desert Test Sites - Link Here

Things are happening in 2010

and on...




Noah Purifoy


Just outside the town of Joshua Tree
Noah Purifoy dedicated his life
to making sculpture



Purifoy was a founder of the Watts Tower Arts Center in the 1960s, but he retreated to the desert in 1989.


  Purifoy chose not to buy new materials for his art. Used and discarded objects with histories, their surfaces worked on by time and circumstance, appealed to him.






"It's a common experience for black people to be homeless.

My family lived in two rooms and moved many times.

So this is a replica of what I've seen
and lived with."
Noah Purifoy


"'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.

You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time.'
'And how long is that going to take?'
'I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps.'
'That could be a long time.'
'I will tell you a further mystery,' he said. 'It may take longer.'"
Wendell Berry (Jayber Crow)


Jimmy's Ghost

Jimmy Cagney and my father were both painters
and they became friends on Martha’s Vineyard.

Cagney sketch by my fatheer


Mr. Cagney was not like other celebrities. He shunned the high life. Instead of building a desert retreat in Palm Springs, he lived in a humble house in Twenty-Nine palms. My parents told me about that...
I was surprised to find the house when I drove through that part of the desert...







Andy's Gamma Gulch Site

From Joshua tree, up a winding road through Pioneertown (I know) and then

to a high plateau where, by magic, all the neatniks have gathered. The

desert seems tended, the homes well kept

and the art is stowed in the desert where

you need a map to find it...


"You Are Here"

Giovanni Jance


"What I stand for is what I stand on."
Wendell Berry


Kate Costello - "Octopus"


Tao Urban - Water Pavilion - 2003

This work symbolizes the three rivers that feed Los Angeles

and by implication - wonder of wonders - the Salton Sea...



maybe unknowable

Does this all seem one-of-a-piece?

conscious and unconscious?

creation and decay?


"In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass."

T.S. Eliot - Four Quartets



more to come

April 1 , 2010