The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Purifoy taught industrial arts in Alabama, served in the U.S. Navy, and earned a master’s degree in social work at Atlanta University in Georgia before moving to Los Angeles in 1950 and enrolling in the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts). Originally a furniture designer, he found his direction in the wake of the 1965 Watts rebellion, establishing the Watts Towers Arts Center and embarking on an influential series of assemblage sculptures. He spent the last 15 years of his life creating an outdoor sculptural environment in Joshua Tree, California.
Purifoy’s earliest surviving work, Untitled (Bed Headboard), 1958, is a masterful wood abstraction that reflects his craftsman beginnings. His signature assemblages emerged in 1966, when he and fellow artist Judson Powell organized “66 Signs of Neon,” a traveling show of works made from remnants of the Watts riots. In Pressure (1966), Purifoy epitomized oppressive force in a smashed lump of metal, but the following year he celebrated the joy of making something from nothing in a sprightly abstraction based on a splayed umbrella frame.
Despite a gap in production from 1972 to 1987, when Purifoy concentrated on social work and arts activism, he left an impressive legacy. Among the Joshua Tree constructions included here is No Contest (Bicycles), 1991, a miniature shanty with a seesaw-like plank on its roof supporting two bicycles. In a Dadaesque twist, the lower bicycle is flipped upside-down, out of commission, while the upper one heads toward heaven. As works such as this one make clear, Purifoy remained a shrewd critic of a world gone awry while retaining his keen sense of humor.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 87.