A long-awaited retrospective examines how Noah Purifoy’s junk aesthetic reflects his deep commitment to social justice.
It was dusk and the heat still emanating from the concrete marked the beginning of another hot summer in Los Angeles. By 2015, some 10 years of drought had brought into greater focus that Southern California is indeed a desert landscape. I ascended the outdoor escalator that runs three stories up the side of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, taking in a panoramic view of neon lights, swimming pools, hillside mansions and the famous Hollywood sign. The telescopes of the iconic Griffith Observatory, barely visible in its perch high upon the hills of Mount Hollywood, were doubtlessly trained on the constellations above.
It struck me that the same stars that shone faintly through the L.A. haze must have captivated Noah Purifoy during the last years of his life. In 1989 the artist, who had been a seminal figure in the California art world and a leader in the African-American community, left Los Angeles for Joshua Tree, a remote outpost in the high desert as yet untouched by urban sprawl and its accompanying light pollution. On a modest patch of parched land, Purifoy greatly expanded the scale of the junk assemblage works he had been creating since the 1960s to build one of the greatest outdoor sculpture parks in the world.
Like many artists in L.A., I had hungered for a reevaluation of Purifoy’s work since his passing in 2004 at the age of 86. There was an unusual level of excitement and intimacy at the opening of the LACMA retrospective “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.” By my count, four generations of artists were in attendance, swapping stories that sounded almost mythical about this visionary artist, teacher, social worker, philosopher, revolutionary, genius and friend. Purifoy had touched many lives over the years, including mine, even though I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. I felt his presence through my mentor, John Outterbridge, who was himself mentored by Purifoy. Outterbridge frequently spoke of their shared belief—their oft-repeated mantra, really—that “art has the audacity to be anything that it needs to be.”
“Junk Dada” reveals that what art needs to be can shift over time. The show begins with Purifoy’s years as a furniture craftsman and interior designer, when he found a place amid Southern California’s relatively prosperous black middle class in the years after WWII. But his path took a dramatic turn following the Watts Rebellion in 1965. The uprising ushered in a period of intense creativity and social engagement for Purifoy. He mastered the art of assemblage, using the remnants and discards of the city, and he worked to build links between artists and social justice movements.
Creating beauty out of ruins, as Purifoy did, can seem uplifting, though no amount of formal mastery could ever fully transcend the sense of violence and despair that permeated his work. Purifoy largely stopped making art following a controversial 1971 installation. After a few scattered projects in the 1980s, including a stint on the California Arts Council, he left for the desert, where he renewed his interest in sculpture and eventually created his magnum opus, “The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum,” a project documented primarily through photographs and videos in the LACMA exhibition.
During the opening, I was handed a small round button with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” printed on it. I later learned that David Hammons had brought the buttons to honor his longtime friendship with Purifoy. Fifty years after Watts and almost 25 years after the beating of Rodney King—events that tore apart Purifoy’s city—the slogan “Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry in 2015 following a string of police killings of unarmed black men.
It is an important moment for Purifoy’s life to matter, and for his work to be presented at the center of L.A.’s cultural establishment. For this we can thank curators Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz. At the same time, there is a melancholy feeling to the show because Purifoy is not around to see it. He spent decades working in relative obscurity, save for an important 1997 retrospective at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Much of the later work in the LACMA show was produced outside the limelight when Purifoy was living in modest circumstances—what many of the glittering attendees of the opening would consider dire poverty. Worst of all, at a time when the museum is pouring resources into preserving the major Land art projects by seminal L.A. figures James Turrell and Michael Heizer, the long-term future of Purifoy’s greatest work—small-scale by comparison to that of the earthmoving Turrell and Heizer—remains, sadly, in doubt.
During the Watts Rebellion, Purifoy watched the city go up in flames. Department store security gates bent back and crumpled, broken window glass littered the streets and neon signs warped from the intense heat. The products of middle-class life—washing machines, televisions, stereos, sofas, clothes, mannequins, children toys and building material—melted together into grotesque amalgamations, water-soaked and blackened with smoke. All of this twisted into an existential crisis for Purifoy.
The uprising tore open the contradictions in the American dream, which he had been dutifully pursuing. Purifoy grew up on a farm in Alabama, a sharecropper’s son in a family of 13. As Lipschutz points out in a masterful catalogue essay, a connection to the cycles of the land and weather patterns in the sky was ingrained on him, even when the family migrated to Cleveland in search of a better life. As a young man, Purifoy received degrees in education and social work. In the 1950s, he went to the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) as its first African-American student. The design trade he learned there put Purifoy on the path to social mobility and provided an escape from the legacy of the Jim Crow South. Ultimately, he fell in love with interior design and began his professional career in L.A. creating modern living rooms with all the creature comforts and coordinated color patterns that the market desired.
The Watts Rebellion demanded a different response. Purifoy gathered bits of the charred ruins of Watts with a group of fellow artists, both black and white, including Arthur Secunda, Max Neufeldt and Ruth Saturensky. The collection sat in great piles in Purifoy’s studio for months, working on him as he decided how to work on it. The result was “66 Signs of Neon,” an exhibition of 66 assemblage sculptures by Purifoy, Judson Powell and dozens of other artists that traveled around the United States beginning in 1966. 1
In working on the show, Purifoy found a new artistic language. Some of his pieces from this time convey with raw immediacy a sense of tension and struggle. Pressure (1966) is a wall relief that includes a hefty glob of melted metal on a blue and black checkered ground. The composition is bounded by a tarnished white frame that could have been rescued from an abandoned house. Other pieces elevate the junk, making it seem almost delicate. At the center of one untitled relief from 1967 is a flattened umbrella, its spines radiating out from the center across three vertically stacked panels painted red, yellow and green. The starburst pattern created by the umbrella is crisscrossed by spindly verticals: fishing poles and the bars of a bird cage.
The pure formal appeal of such work is complicated by the provenance of the materials. Writing in this magazine in 1997, Joe Lewis, a fellow artist and friend of Purifoy’s, described how the work could address a broader social reality:
Purifoy’s vision of the inhumane subsurface of contemporary society’s preoccupation with material possessions . . . reveals our postindustrial isolation and “money-theistic” bankruptcy . . . Though differing greatly in physical measure, all Purifoy’s works are conceptually massive. They are biologically inanimate yet filled with the flash of collective spirits. 2
In this telling Purifoy didn’t redeem the junk by aestheticizing it, as many of the 20th-century modernist masters who took up assemblage sought to do. Purifoy’s work remains bound to its point of origin: a neighborhood that experienced terrible destruction even as it provided a unique space for its residents to pursue their highest cultural aspirations.
Purifoy was not the only assemblage artist working in Watts. What distinguishes his practice in the 1960s is that in addition to creating work that could be sold, he was building institutions that would have a lasting effect on the community. In part because the Rebellion had devastated much infrastructure, Watts was home to one of the best junkyards in Los Angeles, and this proved an attraction for artists in search of free raw material. Outterbridge, still new to Watts in 1967, would drive through the neighborhood “junking.” In a recent interview he recalled meeting Purifoy for the first time on one of these trips:
The junkyard was on Central Avenue, and City Hall, the tallest building at the time, looked like it sat right in the middle of the street. I loaded my truck and I was hungry, so I decided to drive west looking for food. I turned down 103rd Street and could see a tall oil rig standing above the houses. But it was strange, ’cause it wasn’t moving. There was something special about the neighborhood, it had a smell, an energy to it. Down the block standing in front of what I called the Candy House—because the way it was painted reminded me of candy—was Noah and his frequent collaborator, artist Judson Powell. 3
The Candy House was the Watts Towers Arts Center, which Purifoy had cofounded as a community initiative in 1964. The structures Outterbridge misinterpreted as oil derricks were, of course, the Watts Towers, themselves a sculpture park built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia in his backyard between 1921 and 1954. Composed of 17 separate sculptural elements, the highest of which rises 99 feet, the towers can resemble a ship on the sea, a wedding chapel or a collection of shelters, from igloos to huts to tepees. There’s something primordial about Rodia’s powerful work of vernacular architecture. Embedded within are pieces of porcelain, tile and glass, most of which were found along the rails of the train tracks that ran near the yard. The project expresses above all his desire simply to “build something big,” to leave a permanent mark on his environment.
The junk aesthetic had been integral to the L.A. scene since Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner began working in the 1950s. Purifoy’s project is often compared to theirs, as well as to that of East Coast artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson. It’s important to situate Purifoy within this avant-garde tradition, and later in life he even began referring to some of his works as “Combines” in a nod to Rauschenberg. At the same time, Purifoy has to be considered in relation to the vernacular culture of Watts. The flash of living spirit that Lewis identified in Purifoy’s work is evident in Rodia’s masterpiece. The Watts Towers are at the heart of Purifoy’s life and his legacy. Indeed, the friendship he started with Outterbridge at the Candy House in 1967 would perpetuate the Watts Towers Arts Center for a generation, with the younger artist taking the reins of the institution from 1975 to 1992.
This isn’t to say that running a community initiative like the Watts Towers Art Center is all smooth sailing and good feelings. Purifoy knew better than anyone that aesthetic ideals often clash with rough social conditions. Purifoy’s assemblages assumed abstract forms, and he avoided addressing topical protest movements or including overly literal “messages” in his art. In fact, he could be quite critical of what he considered “protest art.”
Purifoy, a teacher and follower of phenomenology, studied Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Sigmund Freud, and it was in these thinkers that he found the political relevance of his work. There is a quasi-mythical story about Purifoy going out to speak to a group of guys, followers of Malcolm X, about modern philosophy, which he saw as a path toward the liberation of consciousness for black people. He believed that genuine art had to be about a search for our best selves, and that reacting to immediate events and conditions could shackle artists and activists alike to the very things they hoped to subvert. But that afternoon at the Watts Towers Art Center, he shared these principles with a group of men who were advocates for a more radical approach to black liberation. An argument ensued and Purifoy’s front teeth were knocked out by the end of it.
Purifoy faced derision, too, for the full-gallery installation Niggers Ain’t Gonna Never Ever Be Nothin’-All They Want to Do Is Drink and Fuck, presented at L.A.’s Brockman Gallery in 1971. The project marked the end of a period in his career. He identified the piece as an “environmental work” meant to conjure an overcrowded apartment: “you can imagine what the bathroom looked like with eleven people using one bathroom.” The scene, which Purifoy described as a setting in which a young child might watch his parents have sex, gives form to “the elements that black people grow up with,” which often affect their adult lives. 4
The installation, photographs of which are included in the LACMA show, provoked a fierce reaction among Purifoy’s friends and peers, and he took a hiatus from sculpture in the years that followed. Purifoy didn’t begin turning out work in a steady way again until the 1980s. The bulk of the art in “Junk Dada” is from the late 1980s to 2004. It’s interesting to consider this flowering, since it happened around the time he moved to the desert, at both a temporal and geographic remove from the political upheavals in Watts that are closely linked to his pieces from the late 1960s.
Charisma (1987) is a wall relief that Purifoy referred to as a Combine. It is formally understated but embodies the “conceptual massiveness” that Lewis described. Purifoy appears to have set the width of the work with a broken plank of wood he found. Four window frames are attached to the plank. Two of these are covered in metal screens, one made of chicken wire, the other of metal from a frying basket. Patches of red, yellow and green paint appear throughout the piece. Behind a third window, hanging below the plank, is a large square of orange. Along the top of the Combine is a single long window that frames the lower three—its top rounded like a church window’s. There’s something anthropomorphic about the piece, with the windows resembling cartoon eyes gazing out at the viewer. There is an exchange of empty gazes as the viewer looks back at the blank frames, perhaps searching for answers that aren’t there.
Office Chair, a Combine created in 1988, recalls Purifoy’s roots in furniture design. Windows feature in this relief as well; a group of them are arranged around the base of a chrome modernist office chair that is flipped horizontally and presented flat against a wooden frame like the umbrella in the untitled 1967 piece described earlier. It is as if Purifoy were conjuring his own past through his late assemblage pieces. He may have used junk as the basis of his art, but it was far from a random selection. A sense of repetition is conveyed through the forms, and patterns—like the starburst of the umbrella and the cruciform office chair—recur again and again.
Purifoy sometimes painted his assemblages. An untitled sculpture from 1992, made largely of old wood and rags, stands approximately 5 feet tall. Purifoy brushed wood slats with bright streaks of turquoise, ultraviolet blue and yellow, and positioned the painted planks vertically within a frame of dark wood scraps he cobbled together. A variety of textiles—scarves, crocheted fabric, burlap and bed linens—are wrapped tightly around the corners of the piece. Purifoy loosely painted the rags with colorful spirals that often clash with the readymade patterns printed on some of the textiles. The work highlights a tension between painting and mass-produced decoration, as if Purifoy were rebuking his own history as a designer through his art.
Late in his life, Purifoy described the liberating effects of working outside the city. “I think I always wanted to do environmental sculpture,” he wrote. “It only became possible when I moved to the desert.” 5 Out in Joshua Tree he made huge, raw works: kegs of beer hoisted on a cart made of metal fence posts; giant anthropomorphic totems of rags and clothes hoisted on high poles; stacks of television sets forming a fortresslike berm. As with the Watts Towers, some of Purifoy’s pieces in the desert approach an architectural scale. Shacks made of wood beams and wire fencing sit among small chapel-like structures, some topped with crosses, that provide barely enough space for a single person to mediate within. Here, the preciousness of a framed piece of art in a gallery is long gone, and so is the tension between ambitious aesthetics and social consciousness. All is integrated in this Gesamtkunstwerk.
After a fall, Purifoy spent the last few years of his life speeding around the desert in a red motorized wheelchair. His friends would visit him for days at a time. If they weren’t assisting him in the building of a new work, they would sit on his porch under the stars discussing art and philosophy into the early morning. Many a faint heart would tire and fall asleep during these legendary discussions.
On a recent visit to Joshua Tree, I watched as the sun set over the Outdoor Museum. Hot winds transitioned into cold desert breezes, while Purifoy’s other helpers—the coyotes, rabbits and birds—began to roam the night and occupy the Museum. Purifoy died at night. After he fell asleep in his wheelchair, his cigarette landed on him, and, tragically, he died in the resulting blaze. His nurse and assistant found him on the floor next to the husk of his red wheelchair. Purifoy was so alive that death could only catch him in his sleep.
Purifoy’s home is now a visitors center where you can watch videos of him describing his philosophy of art. The depth of his vision and the audacity it took to manifest it are evident. I did not comprehend the full scope of Purifoy’s influence on my work and ideas until I visited Joshua Tree. As a part of my art practice I worked in Watts for 15 years as director of the Watts House Project, a collaborative artwork that took the form of neighborhood redevelopment. One of our first projects, in 2008, was the painting of the Flower House, a home that we transformed with a vibrantly colored mural on its facade. Years later I came across a picture of the Candy House and was dumbstruck by how remarkably similar the two were. This similarity underscores Noah’s brilliant way of transforming junk into art; to borrow Outterbridge’s phrase, junk has the audacity to be anything it needs to be, especially in the unexpected forms that emerge from its recycling.
EDGAR ARCENEAUX is an artist based in Los Angeles.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, through Sept. 27.
1. For a comprehensive account of the exhibition, see Yael Lipschutz, “‘66 Signs of Neon’ and the Transformative Art of Noah Purifoy,” 2011, noahpurifoy.com.
2. Joe Lewis, “Noah Purifoy at the California African-American Museum,” Art in America, July 1997, p. 99.
3. John Outterbridge, interview by the author, Los Angeles, June 2015.
4. Noah Purifoy, interview by C. Ian White, in Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015, p. 106.
5. Purifoy, Noah Purifoy: High Desert Assemblage Artist, Göttingen, Germany, Steidl, 2014, p. 15.