The Forgotten Abstract Expressionist of Snow Creek
by Ann Japenga
Snow Creek is a village of a few dozen old fishing cabins and bohemian homesteads, encircled by wilderness and only ten minutes from Palm Canyon Drive. When I went to interview Mildred Herwood here some years ago, I noticed that her little red house claimed the choicest spot in a choice setting. Mildred was snug against the mighty face of Mt. San Jacinto.
Our conversation took place long before I was writing about desert artists, so I barely took note when Mildred mentioned that she had moved here to live and study with an abstract painter who was friends with Willem and Elaine de Kooning and Arshile Gorky in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Mildred pointed out some bound volumes in a bookcase, saying they were the unpublished memoirs of Victor Thall.
Snow Creek by Victor Thall
In the years since, I’ve learned more about art and now know a “lost” abstract artist with roots in the New York School is a coveted find. The forgotten contemporaries of de Kooning, Pollock and Gorky pop up now and then in art magazines. Each rediscovery sets people talking, as collectors and curators hope they have a goldmine on hand. Gold or not, I’d say it’s time that we reclaim our very own Palm Springs link to the legendary New York artists.
Victor Thall came to Snow Creek as an older man, disillusioned with pretty much everything. Still he retained the paint-splashed macho of a Jackson Pollock or de Kooning. With his upturned mustache and a debauched gleam in his eye, he looked like a villain from an old movie.
“Thall drove a red MG, had a whippet named Twiggy, kept rattlesnakes in cages and painted all day,” says Snow Creek resident Les Starks. “He apparently had any number of attractive and accommodating women friends who posed nude in his studio.”
Another Snow Creek resident, Robert Brooks Barron, studied with Thall and recalls the artist target shooting in his bathrobe. A reptile devotee, Thall had a six-foot toilet-trained iguana, and kept his cash in a snake drawer in the kitchen.
“He was a pistol. He was as good as de Kooning or any of those guys but Victor cut his own throat by leaving New York,” says Barron, an artist known to his friends as “Chops.” “I’d put him up there with any of these guys.”
Victor Thall abstraction
Now that Mildred Herwood has passed away, the main champion of the artist is her son, Gary Herwood. Gary got to know Thall during visits to Snow Creek in the 1970s, and says Thall was a “tough, bearded, opinionated, energetic old man who could politely be described as irascible.”
Born in New York in 1902, Victor Thall began his art studies at the Art Students League when he was only 11 years old, later studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His teachers included Arthur B. Davies, John Sloan, George Bellows and George Luks. “I saw the Armory Show in 1913,” Thall once told an interviewer. “Actually that was my first shocking realization of what art should be.”
Victor Thall, Artist
Traveling to Paris, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Academie Julien and the Grande Chaumiere. With a friend he took a bicycle trip to the south of France hoping to glimpse the home of Henri Matisse. When Matisse noticed two young men with art supplies strapped to their bikes, he invited them in and compared their rolled-up drawings to a Picasso he took off the wall.
Back in New York in the 1930s, Thall fell in with de Kooning and Gorky. He participated in the WPA New Deal Art Project and later taught at the Art Students League. He was in the middle of everything as the Abstract Expressionist movement–also called the New York School–gained prominence, becoming one of the first true American schools of art.
Thall had several solo exhibits, including one at the George Binet Gallery in New York City in 1947. The catalogue said: “Victor Thall paints from a palette so varied in hue and value that on his canvases lay the molten images of his fiery talent.” In 1949, a New Yorker art critic named him one of the two best painters in the Whitney’s Annual of Contemporary American Painting.
Yet as fame crept closer, Thall became grouchy and restless. He railed at the artists and dealers who lusted for profit, and condemned the fraud he saw everywhere.
In 1965, Betty Hoag interviewed Thall for the New Deal Oral History Project. Thall told her he hated “the evil smell that was coming on the scene”, as the New York artists were discovered. Standing on a street corner in front of Carnegie Hall, he told Bill de Kooning: “I’ve had it! I’ve just swapped a painting for a Packard station wagon and I’m going! Because there must be a better life than this.”
As his peers became famous, Thall spent the next decades roaming around Mexico and the Caribbean, exploring indigenous art as a key to abstraction. He was “in hot pursuit of the essence of abstraction,” wrote Gary Herwood. Often left behind on this pursuit was his young wife, Mona, and his two daughters.
Mona, by Victor Thall
He eventually made his way to Los Angeles, then Palm Springs and found a boarded-up house to move into in the village of Snow Creek in 1969. Why Snow Creek? For all his urban swagger, Thall had always loved the outdoors. He explored the oceans as a scuba diver; the natural forms he found underwater inspired many of his abstractions. Snow Creek had no coral reefs but it did have voluptuous boulders and a cinematic mountain face that appealed to Thall. “He liked the place, the stream, the quiet and the privacy,” Mildred Herwood later told me.
A tiny island of green in a rocky vastness, the village has always been a magnet for artists, eccentrics and hermits. The artist Axel Linus lived here, as did the hermit woodworker Peter Russ. The contralto soprano Madame Ellen Beach Yaw could often be heard wandering through the village singing opera.
Mildred Herwood was one of the students who came to Snow Creek to study with Thall. She was an understated, salt-of-the-earth woman–nothing like Thall’s usual art crowd. When I met her 16 years after Thall’s death, Mildred remained wholly devoted to him, despite his womanizing. “Mildred told me the best years of her life were spent with him,” says her former neighbor Les Starks.
Victor Thall in Palma, Spain, 1960. Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Gary Herwood remembers evenings at the little red house when the ceaseless San Gorgonio winds rattled the olive trees and the creek still gurgled outside the door. (The creek was since diverted by the Desert Water Agency and no longer graces the village.) Gary describes Thall holding court:
“Victor would be sitting at the dinner table, drinking a glass of wine with his ‘dear little steak’ dinner. If he was in the mood, he might bring the iguana out of its glassed-in terrarium and set it on the table for the horrified guests to watch as it slowly chewed on lettuce. Dogs and cats amble in and out from the living room; the television might be blinking silently to an empty couch. A guest might mention any of the key words – ‘money’, for example – and Victor would take a sip and begin.”
Victor Thall, Reading Figure
In his monologues, Thall was relentlessly contrary, as he had been all his life. He refused to go to school as a child, and he quit the Art Students League because the instruction was “a lot of bilge”. As with most contrarians, the trait can be traced to parental friction. Thall’s mother obviously was a source of unhappiness, as he told an interviewer: “I couldn’t care less whether my mother loved me or not”. He added that “nothing could have made me happier” than escaping from her when he was five years old.
He had problems with his father, too. Thall lived in relative luxury courtesy of his father until age 25. He expected the support to continue indefinitely and when it didn’t he never really got over the indignity. He was so poor when he lived in France that his dog died of exposure in his unheated studio. During the Great Depression (and prior to being rescued by the WPA project), Thall was reduced to the role of a starving hobo riding boxcars; at one time he was locked up in a vagrant camp above Banning. As he said: “I was undernourished, had colitis, malnutrition, intestinal poisoning; I weighed 117 pounds at the time.”
Thall had spent so many years in exhausting revolt against everyone and everything. It must have been a relief for him–as for many others–to discover the reassuring bulk of Mt. San Jacinto. In Snow Creek he found the great maternal shoulder where he could finally rest.
Victor Thall, Pastoral. Possibly inspired by the Snow Creek waterfall
In his final years, he worked on his memoirs and painted women, families and landscapes with an abstract flair. He died in Snow Creek in 1988. His ashes were scattered at the red house under the watchful gaze of San Jacinto. Elaine de Kooning sent a sympathy note from herself and Bill: “We both have very vivid recollections of him–his great energy and intelligence.” (Thall did not return the compliment. He once said: “I wouldn’t let Bill de Kooning come into this house right now and sit at my table because he’s such a noxious coward, when he was my close friend who I loved.”)
Mildred died in 2012 at age 93. Her former home at 15996 Cottonwood Road is currently for sale (September, 2017), but don’t look for the red house as it’s no longer red. Thall rarely sold his work; he believed true artists didn’t dabble in commerce. For years his output languished in storage until Gary Herwood took charge and put up a website, selling some of the paintings. As Gary says: “America does eventually honor her difficult individualists, even if sometimes years after their deaths.”
For more on Victor Thall see Gary Herwood’s website:
Read Betty Hoag’s 1965 interview with Thall on the Smithsonian Archives of American Art website:
Victor Thall, Artist’s Studio
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