A Photographer’s 48-Hour Art and Design Tour Through the California Desert

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

When I started coming out to the Palm Springs and Joshua Tree area in the California desert back in the early 1990s, I was an art student living in Pasadena and in love with the desert light and monochromatic barrenness of the landscape. This was the era of Herb Ritts making music videos out on El Mirage lake bed and Palm Springs modernist architecture languishing in a dilapidated state of decay. As a photography student, I was well versed in the stunning images made by artists inspired by the desert—Edward WestonGeorgia O’Keeffe, and Tina Modotti being the historical models. As far as artists of any note making work in the area, I only knew of Richard Misrach and his series at Salton Sea. I am sure there were more there, I just had no knowledge of them. I visited regularly over the next seven or eight years, driving the streets of Palm Springs, falling in love with its modern architecture, and hiking on and through the rocks of Joshua Tree. A deep love of this area took root, and then I moved away.

That was in 1997, and as the years have passed I have quietly observed the growth of both areas from afar—Palm Springs enjoying a new dawn fueled by design and architecture and Joshua Tree seeming to become a hotbed of young artists. I have returned on occasion—for a long weekend and to photograph the Frey House for my first book Handcrafted Modern (2010)—but I’ve never stayed long enough to really explore the people and places I had heard about. Happily, this past week the stars aligned with a couple of events I was attending—the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair and Palm Springs Modernism Week—so I pulled out my list and finally checked out the places that had been piquing my curiosity the most.


Integratron, Landers, California

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

Somehow, I never knew about the existence of the Integratron when I frequented Joshua Tree and Palm Springs in the late ’90s. Those were the years when this big, wooden, domed structure’s ownership was shifting hands after its maker George Van Tassel’s death in 1978. Van Tassel built it throughout the 1950s and ’60s, supposedly from instructions he received from extraterrestrial visitors from the planet Venus. Its purpose was the rejuvenation of the human body. I have to admit, I just love the backstory to this impressive piece of architecture. Funded in part by Howard Hughes and purported to be built on an “intersection of powerful geomagnetic forces,” the fact that it is still standing seems a bit of a miracle. In 2000, the Karl sisters bought the Integratron and have been its restorers and caretakers ever since. Much of Van Tassel’s original “technology” had disappeared over the 20 some odd years it languished from owner to owner, but its acoustic integrity remains. If you visit, there are tours on offer or an hour-long “sound bath,” but make sure to plan better than I did. Check their website and book ahead.


Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum 

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) came out to L.A. from Alabama in the 1950s and created his assemblage sculptures there until he relocated to Joshua Tree in the late 1980s. For the last 15 years of his life, he created this outdoor museum. 

Having trolled around on dirt roads for much of the day looking for the A-Z sites, by the time I started  searching for the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum it was inching towards sunset. But I thought at the very least I would figure out where it was and return the next day. My GPS was leading me on all kinds of dead-end dirt roads, and just when I thought I was not going to find it, I saw a little handmade sign that read “Noah’s Art Site” with an arrow. Yes! The sun had already dipped behind the mountains as I parked and walked into the outdoor museum.

As I began to take photographs I noticed all these feelings welling up in me. Maybe it was the heartbreakingly beautiful, fading desert light against the multitude of pieces just sitting in the elements. I was shocked at how many there were. I was a bit frenzied, but also filled with an incredible feeling of joy. Much of the subject matter of these pieces is not really light, but that is what I felt. Joy. The intricacy of some pieces, the sense of humor in others, it really stirred me up. And then, as if on cue, a dog started howling in the distance, and as I shot until the very last bit of light remained, dogs all over the valley began howling in the distance. My experience here was unspeakably special.

Although the Noah Purifoy Foundation encourages visitors to book a guided tour, having this place to myself at sunset, and then again when I returned the next day at sunrise presented such a special opportunity to have a uniquely personal experience—Doves cooed the entire time I was there in the morning.


Alma Allen Studio Visit

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

My main purpose for spending time in Joshua Tree was my visit to see the artist Alma Allen and chat with him on a new book I’m working on. I’ve loved his work for years—both his abstract sculptures and his furniture—so on my last day in town I headed up the hill on yet another dirt road to get a tour of his home and studio and to talk about photographing him for the project. The road was a bit harrowing for my little Honda Fit, but as I got close to his place, I could hear the hum of his huge robotic arm working away on what looked like a big burl of walnut. We chatted a bit, and he gave me a quick tour of the house, office, and work areas and then went off to make lunch, leaving me to roam around taking scouting shots. At the moment, most of Alma’s new large scale work is in his show at Blum & Poe in L.A., but the essence of his way of life is present in this house he built. Jumbles of half-finished wood pieces in the workshop and masses of tiny sculptures populate his office shelves. After a lunch of delicious homemade salmon tacos we set a plan for our shoot in the fall, and I was off to Palm Springs.


Palm Springs Fine Art Fair

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

When I was wandering the streets of Palm Springs in the ’90s I was more struck by the architecture, but as I have watched the amazing rebirth of this town in the past 15 years, it has dawned on me just how many important art collectors there are out in these parts. Honestly, there is nothing that goes better with these modern architectural gems than a beautiful painting or sculpture. I’ve seen some jaw-dropping paintings by masters of impressionism and modern art alike in the houses I have toured during my stay. So I was excited to see what the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair had on offer. Here I found minimalist pieces by Ellsworth Kelly and Louise Nevelson, as well as some more traditional pieces. There is really something for everyone. But my heart flipped when I came across Jane Kahan Gallery’s booth and the tapestries by Sonia and Robert Delaunay nestled in one corner. I have been a bit obsessed with tapestries and fine art limited edition carpets for some time now, probably stemming from photographing Gae Aulenti’s home in Milan, which had a huge Lichtenstein limited-edition carpet on one wall, and from discovering the work of mid-century tapestry artist Jan Yoors. So I was thrilled by the numerous tapestries and Aubusson artists’ carpets on offer by the likes of Picasso, Rousseau, Léger, and the Delaunay pair, to name a few. 


Palm Springs Modern Architecture – Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

My favorite thing, by far, to do in Palm Springs is still to just drive around the neighborhoods admiring the modern architecture. Structures that were falling apart in the ’90s are now restored, multi-million dollar homes, and the jewel in the crown is easily the Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann House. I remember driving by it years ago, and it is one that I still “visit” on my little architectural drives. The restoration of this house was meticulous, and the continued dedication of its owners to its upkeep is a thing that inspires me.


Office Buildings by Architect Hugh Kaptur

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

  • Photo by Leslie Williamson for Artsy

And yet with all of Palm Springs’s love of modern architecture, I was shocked to find that one of its gems is about to be torn down. Architect Hugh Kaptur’s work is all over Palm Springs in many municipal buildings and residences, most notably the homes he designed for William Holden and Steve McQueen. Yet, one of the best examples of his work, a set of office buildings on Tahquitz Canyon Way was slated for a recently cancelled demolition and redevelopment. What a shame it would be to see this wonderful piece of architecture disappear. What a beauty! 

Leslie Williamson

Photographs by Leslie Williamson for Artsy.

Revisit the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair on Artsy.

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