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Junk Dada: The Stories Behind Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Sculptures

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KCET is Southern California Television
Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

Many artists, academics, and critics regard the late Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) as one of the most renowned American sculptors who worked in assemblage art. On June 7, LACMA will begin exhibiting a monographic exhibition of his works called Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, curated by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz. The show is designed to bring much-deserved attention to Purifoy's works, but what a lot of people don't realize is that there is already a monumental permanent exhibition six miles from the heart of Joshua Tree called the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, where the public can also learn about Purifoy's artistic vision during the last 15 years of his life, and it's all under the open sky.

Purifoy's background reflects not just an interest in making artworks from found objects, but also education and social work. Born in Snow Hill, Alabama, he taught high-school students industrial arts. He then earned a master's degree in social service administration from Clark Atlanta University. After serving in the US Navy during World War II, Purifoy found himself in Los Angeles, where in 1956 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Chouinart Art Institute. His experience in teaching and social services led Purifoy to become the first director of the Watts Towers Art Center in the 1960s. Following the Watts Rebellion in 1965, he worked on the traveling exhibition "66 Signs of Neon" with six other artists. Then in 1976, Governor Jerry Brown invited Purifoy to become a founding member of the California Arts Council, where Purifoy served for 11 years bringing arts to children, prisoners, and the elderly. With such an impressive resume and such profound ties to Los Angeles, one can't help but wonder why Purifoy made the move to Joshua Tree in 1989 at the age of 72.

"Noah came out to the desert because he couldn't afford to live in Los Angeles," says Joe Lewis, Professor of Art at the University of California, Irvine and President of the volunteer-run nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation. "He had no choice. He was living on social security. He didn't have any kind of retirement fund."

It's here, about 140 miles east of Los Angeles, where Purifoy created his most awe-inspiring, large-scale junk-art installations. Yet while the move to Joshua Tree was born of necessity, it's apparent to anyone who visits the outdoor museum that in many ways, Purifoy was living the artist's dream. With ten acres of land as a blank canvas, Purifoy made over 50 objects out of found objects, but they weren't as easy to come by as in Los Angeles.

"Here in the desert, material objects are precious and people recycle everything," Purifoy wrote in a hand-out at the museum called "Joshua Tree: A Celebration of Junk Art." "There are swap meets, yard sales, and exchanges of materials going on all the time, leaving little or nothing for the junk artist. So, I collect materials that are not recycled in any other way and what I am doing with those objects is attracting attention."

Structure by Noah Purifoy. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Structure by Noah Purifoy. | Drew Tewksbury
Panorama of Noah Purifoy's sculptures. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Panorama of Noah Purifoy's sculptures. | Drew Tewksbury

For ten years, Purifoy mostly worked without any assistance, until he became wheelchair-bound in 1999 and his friends Pat Brunty and the late Roger Brunty stepped in to help the aging artist continue to develop and achieve his creative vision. Throughout his career in the desert, Purifoy made artworks that are both whimsical and sobering, merging surreal elements with subtle political jabs, like a visual spoof of a segregated fountain called "White/Colored," in which the "colored" fountain is actually a toilet. But it was the temporal implications of creating art in a harsh environment where the bright sun and strong winds took their toll on the art that is the real clue as to why Purifoy was doing what he was doing. In one sense, he was creating because he was simply driven to do it. In another sense, it was both despite and because of the art's resulting fragility that Purifoy was able to further explore his ever-growing interest in phenomenology.

"When he was out here, the social activism — that wasn't the focal point of his life anymore," says Yael Lipschutz. "He wasn't working on public policy, and he talked about sort of transcending these issues, coming to a point where he was really focused on making art. And yet the social issues never left, and he spoke a lot to people who visited him about his interest in phenomenology, which was something that dated back to the '60s. But his interest in Husserl and Heidegger strengthened out here, and he spoke a lot about that: his interest in oneness and brotherhood and in these sorts of philosophical questions. So he was very much a thinker."

In Joshua Tree, it seems Purifoy was the same type of artist he was before he moved from Los Angeles. He was still socially conscious, with solid interests in surrealism and the abstract, something that more than likely came from his formal training as an artist. He also worked almost exclusively with junked material following the Watts Riots, and it's something he obviously continued to do in the desert, only on a much larger scale.

"There's this whole conversation between Watts and Joshua Tree that a lot of people ask, because they seem [like] radically different environments," Lipschutz says. "It's also interesting to think about the fact that he started off his career near the Watts Towers, which is, in some ways, a sort of mecca for artists, and this site has also become a mecca for artists, and in a different way."

Whether he was working in South Los Angeles or in the desert, Noah Purifoy continues to be an unsung hero in the art world whose mass recognition is long overdue. The outdoor museum sustains his cult status as one of L.A.'s preeminent artists, and Junk Dada is bringing his life and career both to a wider local public as well to international audiences who visit LACMA. Hopefully, people will visit both museums. Either way, for anyone who sees Purifoy's work, it's easy to speculate and interpret what he was trying to convey, and it seems Purifoy wanted it like that. Still, there are definitely a few interesting stories, anecdotes, and vignettes tied to Purifoy's art pieces that only those who have studied his work and are close to it will know or understand. Here are a few insights from those determined to keep Purifoy's legacy alive.

"Aurora Borealis," 1999-2001 | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
"Aurora Borealis," 1999-2001 | Drew Tewksbury

"Aurora Borealis"

"Noah was short on explanations of his work. He expected people to bring their own meanings and thoughts to his works. The use of discarded materials only increased the intellectual layers and meanings of his pieces. They were not meant to be didactic but quite the opposite. They were springboards into an individual's personal imagination. When he discussed his work it was always in the broadest of terms. He was quite engaged in thinking about aesthetics, the creative process, and their philosophical roots, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, etc.

"'Aurora Borealis' is an immersive environment and a critique of American Democratic ideals. It's an open-air assembly hall in three sections, Entry hall, Speakers section and sunken garden. (your image is a view of one of its sides). The entry point is dominated by a printer's lithographic plate of the Declaration of Independence, broken in half and hanging from a ceiling rafter. There used to be a section designed as a speaker's platform — now lost to the desert elements and one of the many challenges faced by the Foundation's mission to preserve and maintain Noah's works — the subtext of which was a riff on electioneering and the way in which that activity undermined the original ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The west-facing wall is made of glass bottles, and at sunset, it casts a multicolored glow upon the entire space. Noah did not discriminate about the materials he used to make art and welcomed nature working with him in the creative process. "Noah's whimsical use of the naturally occurring desert environment conceptually ties the whole piece together by focusing on one of the significant failures of our democratic doctrine — that all men are created equal — perhaps the most significant and enduring phrase of the American revolution." — Joe Lewis, Professor of Art at the University of California, Irvine and President of the volunteer-run nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation

"Ode to Frank Gehry"

Noah saw everything as a material. Nothing was left off of his pallet or escaped the swing of his hammer or zip from his drill. The piece is constructed primarily from the wood used to create the works displayed in the retrospective exhibition mounted by the California African American Museum/C.A.A.M., Los Angeles, "Noah Purifoy: Outside and in the Open," that traveled nationally to Atlanta, Dallas, and Oakland, California. The story goes, unbeknownst to C.A.A.M., once his work was returned to the Joshua Tree site, Noah was inspired and immediately began using the packing materials and crating to build an architectural piece he titled "Ode to Frank Gehry." To my knowledge, I don't think Noah ever met Frank Gehry, though he is a longtime friend of one of the Foundation's Trustees, and he did design a set of chairs for the Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture visitor's center.

"I do not have a transcript of the conversation between he and the C.A.A.M officials when they came to pick up the empty crates. Legend has it that the conversation did not reflect the dryness of the high desert environment. Many of Noah's friends told him he should have been an architect because of his deep interest and knowledge of architecture and design. I liken the work to an earlier installation "66 Signs of Neon" culled from the detritus from the Watts Riots — always in the moment and using the present to reflect not only on the past but the future as well." — Joe Lewis

"Old Woman." | Photo: Tanja M. Laden.
"Old Woman." | Tanja M. Laden

"Old Woman"

"It's so simple. And I don't know, it shouldn't work, but it works. Those two boots and those two little posts. How does this structure suggest some sort of bodily form, where it's nothing but some slats of wood? But I invariably think about it as being somewhat figurative every time I encounter it. It's surreal in the sense of, "Why?" I thought it was kind of one of the more silly ones, the first time I came. Like, 'Oh, this will never hold up.' And yet it does... Each piece is somehow interacting or somehow spurred on by some very basic human characteristic, or something that he recognizes or something that he's felt." — Franklin Sirmans, Terri and Michael Smooke Curator and Department Head of Contemporary Art, LACMA and co-curator of Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.

"Gallows." | Photo: Tanja M. Laden.
"Gallows." | Tanja M. Laden

"Gallows" (Purifoy's last work)

"Gallows is a very political work, in a way. It is a replica of the main prop in a 1968 western called Hang 'Em High with Clint Eastwood and Dennis Hopper... Noah loved movies and he was watching that movie on VHS repeatedly and loved it, and finally said to Pat and Roger, 'Look, I want to make that gallows. Let's go out there.' And Pat and Roger basically built it, because he was in a wheelchair at that point. And it's a pretty straightforward replica of that object, but it's an interesting story. It's a good western... It's interesting to think about that story, and how it might sort of resonate with Purifoy's own history. And he was, in addition to a social activist, somewhat of a cowboy. I mean, he came out here and I think he sort of thought of himself in that light, a little bit. You know, it takes a very individual-minded person to come and live alone and make a life out here." — Yael Lipschutz, co-curator Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada

"No Contest." | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
"No Contest." | Drew Tewksbury
Purifoy structure. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Purifoy structure. | Drew Tewksbury
Detail of "White House." | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Detail of "White House." | Drew Tewksbury
Interior of Noah Purifoy structure. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Interior of Noah Purifoy structure. | Drew Tewksbury
Noah Purifoy sculpture. | Photo: Tanja M. Laden.
Noah Purifoy sculpture. | Tanja M. Laden
"Aurora Borealis," 1999-2001. | Photo: Tanja M. Laden.
"Aurora Borealis," 1999-2001. | Tanja M. Laden
"Carousel." | Photo: Tanja M. Laden.
"Carousel." | Tanja M. Laden
"White/Colored." | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
"White/Colored." | Drew Tewksbury
Noah Purifoy sculpture. | Photo: Tanja M. Laden.
Noah Purifoy sculpture. | Tanja M. Laden