The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.
Driving home after a haircut one day, I swung by the former Cathedral City home of the visionary painter Agnes Pelton. She moved out of the house in 1960 and died a year later. At the time of my visit 10 years ago, she was not well-known and hardly anyone remembered that she once lived here. (Today she is en route to the premier American art museum, the Whitney, with a show opening March 13, 2020.)
I drove down a narrow lane, braking to avoid semi-stray dogs and abandoned cars, and parked in front of a duplex — an ungainly hybrid of Spanish style and modern additions. Folded laundry heaped on a vehicle out front suggested someone was moving out, and a For Sale sign confirmed the impression. In the times I’d driven by the house on my personal quest to find Agnes, I’d never come closer than the street. An artist's home holds her essence; the For Sale sign was a clear invitation to me to peek inside the one-time lair of a desert mystic.
The artist painted desert smoke trees and dunes, but the works that now bring hundreds of thousands of dollars are her cosmic abstractions that plumb the unseen forces behind the landscape. People like me who know nothing about abstract art can still take pleasure in her orbs and wings and plumes of light. She expressed transcendence so well that anyone can get it.
Because of the cosmic reach of her landscapes, Pelton has often been compared to Georgia O’Keeffe. In fact, the painters’ careers ran on parallel tracks. Both studied with Arthur Wesley Dow in New York; both came to the desert at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan (Luhan visited Pelton in Cathedral City). Both found their true love in the arid lands.
O’Keeffe has been the more famous painter, but Pelton’s status took a big leap starting in 2009 with a show called “Illumination” at the Orange County Museum of Art. Curator Karen Moss had the gumption to hang Pelton’s works side-by-side with Georgia O’Keeffe’s. The buzz among visitors: Pelton outshone the New Mexico maestro.
Much as I’d like to continue the O’Keeffe parallel, I have to say the duplex at 68-680 “F” Street hardly resembled the majestic Ghost Ranch. As the grittier working-class sibling to glamorous Palm Springs, Cat City (as it's known) has always had a slight inferiority complex. The town was open desert when Pelton moved here in 1932. It later became known for illegal gambling and brothels. The lower cove neighborhood — built on an alluvial fan and protected by a circle of low hills — was still gritty at the time of my reconnaissance. As I locked the car door and crossed the gravel front yard for the first time, I felt I was finally getting closer to Pelton, the person.
Pushing through an unlocked gate, I could see this side of the duplex was vacant. It was safe to look around. I continued past the newer section, through a second gate, past a dripping swamp cooler, until I came to the original core of the house: The studio Pelton completed in 1939.
The curtains in the main room were open a notch. It was a solemn moment. As I looked inside I saw Pelton’s studio looking as if she’d walked away yesterday. There was the fireplace with — for all I knew — her own fireplace tools, the original diamond cut concrete floor, and the spot where her easel stood and where — for 20 years — she did some of her most enduring work. The scene matched exactly a photograph of Pelton’s studio in Michael Zakian’s 1995 book: “Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature”.
I walked around a corner of the house and found a porch off the living room with a view of Mt. San Jacinto. Many paintings were inspired by this view, now hemmed in with houses. From this porch, Pelton contemplated the geology of the mountain and witnessed ecstatic star shows — all reflected in her work. The mountain was guru to Pelton, as it was to many artists. On the cover of her guest book under the words, “Agnes Pelton Studio”, she wrote: “Hail San Jacinto!”
Click right and left to see some of Agnes Pelton's works:
Wanting to know more about the early Cathedral City resident, I visited the first mayor of Cathedral City, Robert Hillery. Hillery and his parents were close friends and neighbors of Pelton when Bob was a boy. Hillery’s dad sold Pelton the lot where she built her house.
When you entered Bob and Kay Hillery's Indian Wells home, you looked right and there in the dining room was the “Pelton wall”, a trio of Pelton paintings including a radiant cluster of dates. Bob Hillery walked me into a back room, struggling over the steps due to a painful back surgery, and showed me a portrait Pelton had painted of his mother, Marguerite.
Pelton was so otherworldly in her interests that I expected in person she would have worn turbans and levitated. Surely she’d be inaccessible to ordinary people. But in talking to Hillery, a different picture emerged. The Pelton he knew was an involved member of the small Cathedral City community, then numbering only 100 or so. Cat City in those days was a place where teachers dispatched rattlesnakes in the schoolroom and wild horses came down from the hills and turned on the water taps.
And into this scene came Agnes Pelton, age 50, an artist who had lived in a windmill on Long Island. A believer in astrology, numerology and auras, she was president of the Transcendental Painting Group in New Mexico. How would these worlds combine? Just fine, as it turns out. Pelton said of the California desert: “This region has taken me in, accepted me.”
Hillery told me Pelton never learned to drive, so she relied on rides from the neighbors. It took a minute to absorb this — a landscape painter with no wheels. Hillery’s father, Willard, would drop Pelton and her paints off beyond the second wash out on Date Palm and come back several hours later to retrieve her.
Click right and left to see even more of Agnes Pelton's works:
Agnes’ next-door neighbor was Harriet Day, director of the influential Desert Inn art gallery. Other neighbors included the exotic Swedish arts patron Christina Lillian, and the exuberant butch-dressing painter (a student of Edgar Payne), Matille "Billie" Prigge Seaman. A bohemian sisterhood thrived here amidst the endless creosote.
Artists came here for the big views (San Gorgonio, San Jacinto and the Little San Bernardino mountains) and cheaper rents than in Palm Springs, the town just to the west. Agnes' visitors included artists Cabot Yerxa — the pueblo-builder of Desert Hot Springs — Jimmy Swinnerton and Transcendental Painting Group member Dane Rudhyar. Pelton also befriended Claude and Edna Cobb, owners of the first store in the village. It doubled as the post office and gas station. Claude Cobb owned a date ranch off of DaVall Road and it was there that Pelton painted her date portraits.
She’d often talk to young Bob Hillery about the adventures of his Boy Scout troop and was always eager to know what trails he'd traveled in the mountains. To escape the brutal summers, Pelton eventually bought a cabin from the Cobbs on Thomas Mountain (up the winding Highway 74 from the Coachella Valley). Just up the hill was the Hillery cabin. Again, she relied on the kindness of neighbors to drive her back and forth from the desert floor to the mountains.
When Pelton died at age 79, she was still exploring the depths of light and life in her final painting “Light Center.” Her ashes were scattered near her mountain cabin.
In the years since my visit, Pelton has grown tremendously in stature. Her house is completely enveloped in multi-colored mosaic tile (Agnes would not recognize it as her home) and her name graces refrigerator magnets, socks and an Airbnb franchise: One side of the duplex I visited is for rent to vacationers.
There is no one left who remembers her and few who know her life story. The first mayor, Bob Hillery, has since passed away. And the Pelton biographer Michael Zakian — who interviewed early desert residents — died in January 2020. Zakian was director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University for 25 years.
I'm glad I had the chance to stand on Pelton's dusty patio before she became an art world sensation. Now that she swims in the rarefied atmosphere of O'Keeffe and Hilma af Klint, my visit reminds me that mystic genius doesn't have to live apart. With a great mountain in front of her and neighbors who had her back, Agnes found the infinite in this ordinary small town.
“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” an exhibition organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art March 13 and runs until June 28, 2020. It travels to the Palm Springs Art Museum from Aug. 1 to Nov. 29, 2020.
Top Image: A hiker surveys Cathedral City village in the 1940s. Cathedral City Historical Society.