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A Desert Museum’s Ode to Black Assemblage Art

The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture sits on 10 acres in the Mojave Desert.

by Antwaun Sargent
May 3 2016, 3:00pm

Noah Purifoy, No Contest (bicycles), 1991, Assemblage sculpture, 168 x 252 x 24 in. Noah Purifoy Foundation © Noah Purifoy Foundation Photo © Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of The Noah Purifoy Foundation and The Wexner Center for the Arts 

In the California desert, a hundred and thirty miles south of downtown Los Angeles, sits a sculpture park of artist Noah Purifoy’s art. The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture was established in Joshua Tree, California, before the artist’s death in 2004. Today, the Noah Purifoy Foundation maintains the site, which aims to bring visibility to the artist’s art and attention to how his practice impacted both assemblage sculpture and land art.

For the 15 years that preceded his death, Purifoy worked daily in the desert heat constructing the art that sprawls across the 10-acres of desert in which he lived and worked. "He didn't originally start building this whole site as a museum,” explains Yael Lipschutz, a board member of the Purifoy foundation, to The Creators Project. "It happened over the years.” She says, "Some people thought he just wanted this work to disappear. That's absolutely not true. We as a foundation maintain the site as a free and open assemblage space. When something falls down we put it back up. Elements that are really his own that are impossible for us to really deal with, without inserting our own hand, we leave.” Lipschutz adds, “There's a very clear wear and I think poetry of time in the desert that you see in the works. We also educate people about Purifoy's story."

Noah Purifoy, From the Point of View of the Little People, 1994, Mixed-media construction, 120 x 96 x 18 in. Noah Purifoy Foundation © Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo © Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation and LACMA.

Purifoy was born in 1917 in Snow Hill, Alabama. He grew up in and suffered through the indignities of the segregated south before fighting in World War II and earning himself a master’s degree in social work in 1949. In 1950, the artist moved to California, and in the following year enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. At Chouinard, which later became CalArts, he was introduced to Dadaism. In Duchamp’s notion of “anti-art,” he found purpose and use in found objects, which became mainstays in his oeuvre.

“The idea of using found objects really became a mantra for him. He wasn't very interested in art as an elitist subject,” explains Lipschutz. “Art was a way to relate to humanity and ultimately phenomenally connected to the desert." The found objects that bend and contort into sculpture throughout the outdoor sculpture park are intimately tied to the weeklong August 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of the burning of the African-American community, Purifoy wheeled a cart around, collecting a burnt bible, smoldering neon signs, and ashen metals.

In the end, the artist gathered three tons of debris from the neighborhood’s torched street. “Often the smell of the debris [...] turned our thoughts to what were and were not tragic times in Watts and to what to do with the junk we had collected, which had begun to haunt our dreams,” the artist reflected years later. From the rumble, Purifoy created his most well known art that equally and paradoxically represent both black anguish and freedom. He exhibited the works the following year in the group exhibition, 66 Signs of Neon. The works Pressure and Untitled (Watts Remains) are two of the many assemblage sculptures that appeared in the exhibition that the reflected the marginalized realities of black life that ignited the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, Purifoy presented a replica of a shotgun house lived in by ten black mannequins and roaches. The exhibition entitled, Niggers Ain’t Gonna Never Be Nothing—All They Want to Do is Drink and Fuck, depicted extreme squalor. Held amidst the Black Power movement, the show allowed the artist to controversially clear his throat, tell the truth the way he saw it, and ultimately "quit" art. For the next decade he focused on using art as a social worker to fuel social change. He founded the Watts Tower Art Center and joined the California Arts Council, where he helped establish arts education in the California correctional system.

“On August 1, 1989, Noah Purifoy left Los Angeles. One hundred miles east along Interstate 10, at Highway 62, also known as the Twentynine Palms Highway, he exited and began to snake through a rocky cluster of arid mountains,” writes Lipschutz in an catalog essay that describes the move that gave Purifoy the space to create the works that would later form his museum. “He passed through the small high-desert towns of Desert Hot Springs, Morongo Valley, and Yucca Valley before arriving in the village of Joshua Tree.”

Foreground: Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Noah Purifoy Foundation © Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo © Low Altitude Blimp Photography

Purifoy’s decade-and-a-half sojourn in Joshua Tree transformed him into a land artist whose products differed greatly from earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass. Purifoy lived and created in solitude. The more than 120 sculptures he made appear today as a fantasy world, crafted, like the earlier works in 66 Signs of Neon, out of whatever discarded materials he could find. Purifoy built his patch of desert into singular works of what he considered, socially, politically, and architecturally engaged, “environmental sculptures.”

In 1999, he built Ode to Frank Gehry, a futuristic sculpture that recalls the architect’s similarly imagined buildings. It’s one of many structures that, from a distance, stand in the arid high winds as missives from the man-made world. “He never returned to using new material after Watts. For him it was connected to Watts and using art as a tool for social change,” notes Lipschutz. Scroll II (2001), Five Pennies (Desert Tombstone series) (1990s), and Core Door (1996) are examples of many of the works that fill the foundation’s land art museum. The museum also contains a Purifoy built Quonset hut featuring diverse flat works.  

"Noah is an underrecognized artist and our argument and very firm belief is that he is a really pivotal figure in postwar sculpture,” explains Lipschutz who co-curated the LACMA retrospective. “It's absolutely not an LA story, it's rooted in LA, and I sometimes feel frustrated because people think this is some small regional thing, but then I don't why we would be interested in any artist—Rauschenberg is just not a New York artist.” She says, “We wanted to have a really full-scale retrospective which had never happened. It was a real revelation to a lot of people."

Lipschutz says the desert museum’s mission will continue to bring visibility to historical implications of Purifoy’s art by offering educational tours and trying to get Purifoy’s art into important American museums. “I will like the foundation to be funded by major American granting institution so we can be assured that we can keep the museum open and maintained.” She adds, “I'd like to see his work in the public collections of all the major museums in this country. Basically I want people to understand how pivotal he is in the development of post-war sculpture. In order for that to happen his work needs to enter the art historical cannon, which is a narrow framework that is shaped by the politics of the market, art history, and race. I want that discussion to be broader in general and more accurate."

To make an appointment to visit The Noah Purifoy Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture email noahpurifoyfdn@gmail.com. For more information on Noah Purifoy, click here.

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