Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum: Joshua Tree’s Little Secret

Noah Purifoy in Joshua Tree, 1996.

Where do you go in Joshua Tree when you’re not in the mood for the National Park experience? We opted for Noah Purifoy’s old place. Down a dirt road, on the left. We saw it before we were there.

Are those commodes towering in the air? we wondered. Yes indeed. Porcelain monuments to the private moments of mankind, in an outdoor museum that reminds us of years gone by, both good and bad. We’ve stumbled on to a mecca of modern Dadaism where one man’s trash really was another man’s treasure.

The Story of Noah’s Ark Art

Noah Purifoy is considered the father of the Black Assemblage movement, an art form that was strongly influenced by the European Dadaist movement of the early 1900s, which sprang out of the post-World War-1 years, primarily in France and Germany.

He was a shop teacher and social worker before he decided to make art his vocation at the age of 34. He was accepted into the Chouinard Art Institute in 1956, a Disney-funded art school in Lafayette Park. In due time, Noah became a prominent figure among African American artists nationwide.

Noah Purifoy moved from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in 1987. About a decade later, in 1997, The Noah Purifoy Foundation was created to preserve and maintain the environment of open-air sculptures Purifoy had been creating on the land surrounding his desert home at 63030 Blair Lane.

The bicycle sculpture is called “No Contest.”

Noah Purifoy was born on August 17, 1917, the 10th of 13 children, in rural Snow Hill, Alabama. The family moved to Cleveland when he was 12. Noah later studied at Alabama State Teachers College, taught shop in Montgomery, fought in the South Pacific during World War II and earned a Master’s Degree at Atlanta University. In 1952, Purifoy moved to Los Angeles.

A founding member of the California Arts Council and the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in the 1960s. The Towers, at 1727 E. 107th Street, in Los Angeles, are also worth a visit. The Dadaist influence is readily apparent. Purifoy was the recipient of many awards over his lifetime.

Out of the Rubble Came Respect

The poverty and injustice that simmered in the South-Central Los Angeles community of Watts reached its zenith on August 11, 1965, and for six days the town burned and rioting ensued. While the fires were still smouldering, two Watts artists, Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell, began to sift through the rubble.
There are stories to be told from life’s events, and these were the men to tell them. In the months that followed, Purifoy and Powell collected three tons of junk. Then in a thirty day explosion of activity, they and a group of their colleagues assembled 66 pieces of sculpture from urban objects they collected, and they named it, “66 Signs of Neon,” which became a traveling exhibition show.

Junk sculpture is not new pursuit. It may even go back millennia, though credit for its founding usually goes to French artist, Marcel Duchamp. In any case, junk tells a story, especially when the right story-tellers arise. The collages of the cubist artists, the works of Picasso and the mysterious ready-mades of Duchamp set the stage for assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy.

Noah Purifoy’s works have been part of the collections at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum in New York, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, the Oakland Museum, Illinois Bell Telephone Company, Smithsonian Archives of American Art and others. The art form is very popular still.

Noah with Aurora Borealis, Joshua Tree, about 1999. Photo courtesy of Noah Purifoy Foundation.

In 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed him to the California Art Council where he helped create and fund new art programs enabling artists to work in educational, social and correctional institutions.

“From the Point of View of the Little People” by Noah Purifoy.

Purifoy resumed making art after his move to Joshua Tree and entered a very productive period. His assemblages, he said, “reveal the absurdity of urban life.” A documentary film on Purifoy and his 7.5 acre Joshua Tree environment won second prize in a national competition sponsored by Sony Corporation and the American Film Institute.

His hundreds of pieces of art is large and sprawling, unwieldy but artful combinations of bicycle wheels, bowling balls, train tracks, commodes and other found objects.

“The idea of taking found objects and putting them in the harsh conditions of the desert added a strange dimension to his work,” said artist Ed Ruscha, who donated much of the land.

Gradually other artists moved to Joshua Tree, inspired by Purifoy’s assemblages. Artist Andrea Zittel was one of them, and included some of Purifoy’s work in twice-yearly desert art shows called High Desert Test Sites.

In 2004, Purifoy was found by his caretaker in his home badly burned next to his wheelchair. At the age of 86 years old, Purifoy had been recovering from a broken hip but was still an active artist. The coroner said Purifoy may have fallen asleep while smoking. Purifoy is survived by four sisters. Although he is greatly missed, his enduring art lives on through his foundation.

The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art is open to the public every day of the year from sun up until sundown and is free of charge. Please sign in at the welcome kiosk near the mailboxes when you visit, and take one of our brochures for a self-guided tour.  Groups of more than 10 people must first make arrangements with the Foundation.

Citations and Recommended Resources:

The Baltimore Sun, 26 May 1968

The Des Moines Register, 8 June 1968

The Courier-Journal, 13 August 1968

Elko Daily Free Press, 30 Aug 1996

The Town Talk, 8 Sept 1996

The Atlanta Constitution, 30 Jan 1998

The San Francisco Examiner, 05 July 1998

The Desert Sun, 7 March 2004

The Los Angeles Times, 29 March 2015

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