Last spring, Instagram feeds began filling up with images of a peculiar sight: a ranch-style house completely covered inside and out with mirrored surfaces that reflected and blended into its surrounding Palm Springs desert landscape. It was Doug Aitken’s “Mirage,” and this structure was just one of the several outdoor, site-specific artworks made by international artists and peppered throughout the Coachella Valley. They were all part of the inaugural and biennial Desert X art exhibition, which will return in 2019.
The allure of Desert X 2017 led people to trek out in droves to the Coachella Valley for an art scavenger hunt of sorts. Folks who ventured out to Rancho Mirage found Will Boone’s underground bunker and his President John F. Kennedy statue. Others who followed the Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs were privy to Jennifer Bolande’s picturesque billboards that matched the rocky vista behind it.
These types of exhibitions, ones worth traveling to, offer more than just a visual experience. When you take road trips and consider art — rather than the cities — as the main attraction, the journey brings about a transformative experience. There’s the excitement of the unknown as you traverse dirt roads to get to remote art destinations, and you end up visiting fascinating exhibits along the way that you’d most likely miss had you gone on a run-of-the-mill vacation. As you become immersed in an artistic mindset on your excursion, you begin seeing art differently: It’s everywhere around you and in the most surprising and unexpected places.
A few cities on the western half of the United States stand out above the rest when it comes to having artwork worth the road trip. Southern California desert cities like Palm Springs, Joshua Tree and Slab City can all be grouped together for a weekend adventure. And while areas like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Marfa, Texas are further east, the drive out to these locations is a worthwhile one that gives you a contextual understanding of how local art connects to its surrounding American landscapes.
Otherworldly desert folk art in Southern California
There is a common thread that runs through some of the most engrossing art pieces in the Southern Californian desert: They epitomize the phrase “out of the ordinary.”
In these parts, it’s not uncommon to find artists using sprawling tracts of desert land as outdoor art museums, often filling them with towering sculptures created out of found objects. Some of these art pieces feel otherworldly, as if they were plucked out of a Burning Man festival and dropped into a desolate wasteland, or even more juxtaposing, in a suburban neighborhood.
Robolights, a trippy and colorful, two-acre art garden in Palm Springs, is one of those refreshingly unique exhibits that change the way you view art and “junk.” For over 30 years, artist Kenny Irwin, Jr. has been magically transforming old appliances, car parts and carnival rides into whimsical and unsettling art sculptures depicting aliens, robots and creatures.
Strangely enough, Robolights is situated in an unusual location: Irwin, Jr.’s backyard, in the middle a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood.
During Christmastime, the artist covers his property with millions of twinkling lights, revamping Robolights into a sci-fi winter wonderland, and opening the space to the public for nightly viewings. The rest of the year, people can visit by appointment in the daytime, which is a whole other experience worth checking out. It’s a bonus that Irwin, Jr. lives on site and is open to chatting with visitors about his artwork.
One of the perks of an art road trip is getting the chance to absorb beautiful landscapes on the way to your next destination. Travel about 35 miles northeast from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree, and on the way, you’ll pass by hundreds of windmills on a wind turbine farm; it’s a breathtaking sight, especially since it’s set against the backdrop of the striking and sometimes snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere in Joshua Tree, you’ll find the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Structure. The late Noah Purifoy spent the last 15 years of his life creating art pieces on his large-scale canvas: 10-acres worth of desert land. Here you’ll find burnt-out cars, retro TVs and VCRs and bicycle wheels teetering off a slanted shack. Since this art museum is off the beaten path, sometimes you might even find yourself alone in this serene, sprawling art space, another opportunity to be fully immersed in the experience.
Part of what makes an art road trip so rewarding is the challenge of finding the art. Sometimes directions are scant, road signs are few and far between, and with your spotty cell signal, you might be driving on an empty road for miles wondering if you’re even going in the right direction.
That’s the charm of Slab City, an eccentric community situated next to the city of Niland, about 85 miles southeast of Palm Springs and close to the Salton Sea. When you drive there, you won’t even know if you were on the right track until you spot a red-and-black sign painted with the reassuring words, “Slab City, Almost There!”
Slab City is 640 acres of abandoned land, which could be in danger of getting sold, and is occupied mostly in the wintertime by snowbirds, retirees and artists living off the grid. There’s a strong artistic community within it. The entrance to Slab City is folk-art mecca Salvation Mountain. The late Leonard Knight’s rainbow-painted hill of adobe clay is covered in religious scriptures and proclamations of love for God. The kaleidoscopic mountain and surrounding art cars are an exhilarating sight, a surprising pop of color in an otherwise barren landscape in the California Badlands.
If you continue down a dirt road, you’ll find East Jesus, an outdoor art museum helmed by a collective of artists who live on the property. Junk is repurposed as art sculptures, a nod to the artists’ no-waste way of life. An archway of bicycle wheels serve as the entrance, and inside are sculptures like a massive elephant made out of shredded tires and blue mannequin legs kicking out of an art car’s roof.
Explore a fantasy playground in Santa Fe
A road trip, by way of exploring regional cultures and landscapes, gives you context in understanding a city’s evolution in art. Santa Fe has long been viewed as an art destination; Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork reigns supreme here, and Canyon Road, an iconic half-mile stretch of galleries, is a household name. But there’s a new wave of contemporary artists breathing fresh life into the Santa Fe art scene and making the community live up to its nickname of “The City Different.”
Meow Wolf, an art collective that creates immersive experiences, rocked the art world — and Santa Fe — when it launched its permanent, George R.R. Martin-funded “House of Eternal Return” exhibit in 2016. This 20,000-square-foot installation is an interactive fantasy playground with secret passageways and hidden rooms that lead you through time, space and multi-dimensions. There’s nothing like it around, which means it’s completely worth the road trip.
How to find art in the middle of nowhere in Marfa
Austin may get most of the attention when it comes to tourism in Texas, but there’s good reason why art enthusiasts have been making the pilgrimage to Marfa, which is located in a remote part of the Lone Star State.
If you want to get to Marfa, your best option is to arrive by car. El Paso and Midland are the closest airports to this art town, and even then, they’re each about a three-hour drive away. Once again, the journey to the art is the adventure. Spending time on the road means you become consumed in the vast, beautiful isolation of the West Texas plains, the same landscape that’s intertwined with the local art.
Marfa is now synonymous with the “Prada Marfa” installation, which despite its name, is actually located in the neighboring city of Valentine, about a 25-mile drive northwest. To get to it, you’ll need to travel down an empty stretch of Highway 90 until you see a replica of a Prada boutique with real shoes and purses. It’s completely out of place in West Texas, a far cry from fashion capitals like Milan. Its desolate backdrop is as much part of the installation as the work itself.
No Marfa trip is complete without a visit to Chinati Foundation, a 340-acre contemporary art museum that plays into its landscapes just like “Prada Marfa” does. Here you’ll find the late Donald Judd’s untitled 15 works of concrete, minimalistic large-scale blocks scattered throughout the property. The hollowed-out blocks give a direct view into the barren plains and blue skies.
What all these art road trips have in common is that the journey to these art destinations is challenging and enthralling. They help you connect with the artists and better understand the meaning behind their artwork vis-à-vis their unique surroundings. So throw caution to the wind, roll down your windows and put some mileage on that car of yours as you hunt down that next piece of art that might just change and inspire you.
Top Image: Slab City sign | Jean Trinh