Artists can develop an entire style around an affinity for an elementary shape. Pablo Picasso loved cubes and circles. Mark Rothko was obsessed with soft-edged rectangles. Josef Albers played endlessly with the colored square. And celebrated High Desert artist-philosopher Andrea Zittel, who has spent more than 20 years exploring solitude and paring down her art—and her life—to its most spare and satisfying components, has a long-standing fascination with what she refers to as the planar panel. Basically, any purely right-angled rectangular form, whether a sheet of paper or a plywood slab, a slice of mirror or a window, even the sharp sides of a shipping container or a cardboard box, could be fodder for her imagination.

Scattered across 10 acres of land south of Highway 62 near Joshua Tree National Park, on Zittel’s vast A-Z West compound, her sprawling site-specific installation Planar Pavilions rises from the gently sloping Mojave Desert floor.

The enigmatic grid of 10 architectonic, matte-black cinder block walls of various heights and configurations was installed permanently in 2017 and has been open to the public ever since. Eerily striking against the harsh, barren scrub that stretches in all directions, the puzzling constructions bring to mind the ruins of an abandoned city, or cryptic messages from a minimalist future.

They’ve also become an inviting—and COVID-safe—destination for art lovers during a time when many galleries have shuttered. This spring, a great swath of desert north of Palm Springs will play host to nine new site-specific works (in Pioneertown, Yucca Valley, Wonder Valley, and Joshua Tree) by a roster of international artists as part of Zittel’s annual High Desert Test Sites. She launched the nonprofit event in 2002 to support experimental artists drawn, like her, to letting their imaginations run wild in the arid terrain. HDTS is considered the precursor of Desert X, the biennial outdoor exhibition that, pandemic restrictions permitting, also plans to unveil provocative temporary art installations scattered across the Coachella Valley this spring.

andrea zittel
Artist Andrea Zittel at A-Z West.

Given Zittel’s penchant for Zen-like austerity, it’s fitting that she derives inspiration from Piet Mondrian’s geometric precision and graphic clarity. “I think the grid is representative of human aspirations,” Zittel told Art21 in a rare on-camera interview. “Everything is based on the grid. The calendar. Our schedules. It’s about human perfection.”

Yet Zittel’s favored shape, with its perfect 90-degree angles, doesn’t occur in nature. And by setting her pitch-black rectilinear creations against the neutral-toned background of the ancient desert, she creates powerful juxtapositions of order and wildness, framing vistas and suggesting boundaries. These concerns have guided her practice for decades.

Zittel began her career as a sculptor in 1990s New York before decamping in 2000 and creating a home base, which now encompasses more than 70 acres, 130 miles east of Los Angeles. “I wanted to live in a community that was outside the art world,” she told an audience at the Palm Springs Art Museum last year during a conversation with artist Ed Ruscha (who also owns land in the Mojave). The granddaughter of hardy Imperial Valley ranchers, Zittel has a deep anti-consumerist streak and calls herself “hardwired for the desert.”

planar pavilion, mojave desert, andrea zittel
A detail of “Planar Pavilions”; the project’s 10 cinder block structures rise from the Mojave Desert floor.
Sarah Lyon, Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Since she moved out West, her whole existence has slowly, radically transformed into a kind of experimental installation. According to Zittel, it’s become a “life practice” of assorted projects (sculptural installations, guest quarters, workspaces, and a massive craft-and-textile studio) at A-Z West. Zittel, now 55, remains committed to examining and redefining the basic building blocks of life: shelter, community, clothing, air, light, space.

Unlike most first-generation Land artists, an almost exclusively male bunch known for their oversize egos scaled up to match their pharaonic, earthmoving ambitions (think James Turrell, Michael Heizer, and Charles Ross, all of whom have massive, decades-long projects nearing completion in the next couple of years), Zittel is drawn to the desert as a proving ground for seemingly quotidian, yet ultimately philosophical, concerns.

It is there that she’s chosen to create her furniture, clothing, and pop-up shelters. These practices—along with her Planar Pavilions, if not her entire approach to living in the desert—challenge us to ask ourselves and one another: What do we really need to survive and thrive? What kind of design best facilitates, even induces, serenity, clarity, a sense of purpose?

If the answers to such profound inquiries are to be found, then maybe Zittel is right that the High Desert, with its primordial geology and extreme conditions, far removed from the bustle of civilization and commerce, is just the place.•

Jessica Zack is a Bay Area journalist who writes about books, film, and visual culture.