Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 20, 2018
Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz, eds. Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada Exh. cat. New York and London: Prestel, Delmonico, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015. 128 pp.; 80  color ills.; 24 b/w ills. Hardcover $39.95 (9783791354347)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 7, 2015–January 3, 2016

Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada takes an in-depth look at the artistic and biographical journey of the under-recognized African American artist and activist, Noah Purifoy (1917–2004) and his large-scale installation and home environment, the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum (1989–2004). This lush catalogue, richly illustrated with eighty photographs by Fredrik Nilsen, features insightful essays by Yael Lipschutz, art critic and archivist of the Noah Purifoy Foundation in Joshua Tree, California; Lowery Stokes Sims, curator emerita of the Museum of Art and Design, New York City, and former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; and Kristine McKenna, the Los Angeles–based art critic and independent curator. These essays are complemented by a comprehensive biographical chronology, personal remembrances by artists and friends, and two photographic essays by Nilsen, situating Purifoy’s artistic practice against the stark and expansive backdrop of the Mojave Desert.

Purifoy, an artist, designer, and social worker, was a pivotal figure in the African American cultural community of the Watts district, Los Angeles, during the 1960s. He cofounded the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964, an educational facility offering creative enrichment programming for the neighborhood’s children. This center occupied one of the structures comprising the famous Watts Towers site built over a period of thirty-three years between 1921 and 1954 by Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia (1879–1965). Following the Watts riots in August of 1965, Purifoy organized the landmark exhibition, 66 Signs of Neon, featuring sixty-six sculptures made in collaboration with other local artists from the debris of the Watts uprising. Speaking to the disillusionment and frustration of the local African American community, this exhibition debuted at the Watts Arts Center in 1966 and toured the United States, eventually traveling to Germany in 1972 as part of the US Office of Information exchange programs. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Purifoy continued to engage with Los Angeles’s African American community through both artistic and social service avenues. In 1989, he relocated his artistic practice to a friend’s ten-acre tract of land in the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree. There, he created a free, public-sculpture village of over one hundred works dubbed the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. Built from years of collected refuse and discarded objects, his museum provided both a retreat from urban life and a platform to comment on it. This site also served as his home until his death in 2004.

The interpretive content of the exhibition catalogue begins with an essay by Lipschutz entitled, “A NeoHooDoo Western: Noah Purifoy, Spirit Flash, Art, and the Desert.” Throughout her narrative, Lipschutz contextualizes Purifoy’s work as conceptually tangential with various contemporaneous movements, figures, and curatorial frameworks. Most notably, she places Purifoy’s artistic practices against that of entropic process concerns in Land Art; the belief in art as a tool for social change in Arte Povera; and the work of David Hammons’s and Franklin’s Sirmans’s notion of “NeoHooDoo,” which Lipschutz describes as “an elusive philosophical search for an ancestral and spiritual past” (54). In her association of Purifoy’s work with NeoHooDoo, she may have missed an opportunity to elaborate more on the elegiac tone of Purifoy’s structures, which are inextricably tied to their location in the desert. Some clarity here and distinction from the group of diasporic artists engaged in West African–derived ritual and spiritual practices featured in the NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith exhibition curated by Sirmans (Menil Collection, Houston, and PS 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, 2008–9) would have been instructive.

The most developed component of her essay investigates Purifoy’s interests in phenomenology, man-made objects, and architectural structures. For Purifoy, “Junk art, assemblage art” embodied the human condition and remains “as close to human existence because it’s all the castoffs we are utilizing here . . . it’s closer to existence than any other art form” (48). Lipschutz fittingly links Purifoy’s practices and forms to the writings of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. She cites Bachelard’s thoughts on architectural spaces, replete with memory and psychic resonances, as metaphors for humanness: “The house shelters daydreaming . . . protects the dreamer . . . allows one to dream in peace” (48), from Bachelard’s seminal book, The Poetics of Space (1958). Seeing a kinship between Bachelard’s ideas and Purifoy’s Shelter (1999) along with several other architectural sculptures, she argues for a reading of the personal and communal in Purifoy’s work. The power of each structure, composed of banal objects and geometric forms, lies in its ability to record the artist’s private experiences while also tapping “into a collective unconscious” (52).

In her essay, “Noah Purifoy: A Place to Go,” Sims takes a more nuanced approach to looking at Purifoy’s artistic practice of assemblage and his masterful cultivation of both the social and aesthetic nature of objects. She situates Purifoy as one of the pioneers of the California assemblage movement and accordingly, within a trajectory of Duchampian objects, argues that Purifoy’s use of urban detritus serves a different purpose. To that end, she quotes art historian, Collette Chattopadhyay who remarks, “Whereas Duchamp’s readymades emphasize the burgeoning availability of new and replaceable industrial products . . . Purifoy’s works focus on the other end of the spectrum, presenting used and dilapidated products in a manner that accentuates consumer waste and dereliction” (63). Her analysis of Purifoy’s work emphasizes its Watts roots yet notes its relevance today, especially in our current moment of media-saturated voyeurism (think post-Katrina coverage): “our appetites have been whetted for repetitive and insistently dramatic views of that ‘other end of the spectrum,’ the ‘dereliction’ of submerged mold-infested structures and poignant views of water-damaged objects” (64). For Sims, Purifoy’s artistic/social practice continues to act as a kind of urban intervention (even in the isolation of the Mojave Desert) that speaks to prurient, mass media interests in the tragic remnants of destroyed African American communities.

Likewise, she acknowledges the “potent abstraction” in Purifoy’s sculptures, noting where seriality of shape and compositional organization surpasses a sense of narrative (66). Quotes from Purifoy foreground his appreciation for Cubism and Dada while also emphasizing his artistic eye and background as a designer: “The more [the object] is identifiable, the more interest I believe is created around the object, the complete objet d’art . . . many things that are designed for use—household use and so forth—are excellent shapes to look at” (68). Sims reminds us that Purifoy was well versed in design and possessed not only an artistic eye, but he also adhered to craftsmanship, more so than improvisation. She makes it clear that even within the niche of California assemblage, Purifoy followed his own unique vision, balancing message with form. 

Kristine McKenna’s “Noah’s Arc: Noah Purifoy and the Other Los Angeles” examines the emerging black cultural center that South Central Los Angeles was before Purifoy relocated there from Cleveland in 1950. Her essay recounts the burgeoning jazz and performing arts scene as well as growing political activism that further formed artists’ identities during the Watts rebellion and Vietnam War protests. Of the three essays in this catalogue, McKenna’s is the only one to point out how previous art historical scholarship overlooked the political contributions of South Central’s visual artists. She notes that Purifoy’s motivation to organize artists to create works from the ashes of Watts originated from a determination to keep conversations going beyond waning TV coverage. He vowed not let the Watts rebellion “fade away as if it had never happened” (92).

Regardless, the history behind the 66 Signs of Neon shows, and the artists and artistic scene that informed it “faded into obscurity” (93) while a parallel group of artists (including Hammons), the nascent Black Power movement, and hip-hop music established their presence in Los Angeles. McKenna’s narrative attempts to recuperate this significant lost moment in Los Angeles history while also explaining Purifoy’s retirement to the solitude of Joshua Tree. She concludes with a conversation she had with Purifoy in 1995 when he remarked, “I dropped out for twenty years because I was disappointed in art. I’ve never been happy with little things that hang on the wall. I perceived art as a tool for change, and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential savior” (95). All in all, McKenna presents a sense that Purifoy was at peace with his decision to leave South Central Los Angeles and content with continuing his artistic practice on the margins of society: “Purifoy expressed little interest in the subject of race—the canvas of his mind was much broader than that—and he hadn’t a trace of anger or bitterness” (95).

The final section of the catalogue contains short remembrances from artists and friends Ed Ruscha, Sue A. Welsh, Dale Brockman Davis, Judson Powell, and C. Ian White. Each provide personal accounts of admiration for and/or collaborations with Purifoy. Collectively, the essays, reminiscences, and photographs (some documentary, most recording the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in situ) engage with a set of histories connected to the matrices of place, time, and trash-based artistic practices that comprise a welcome and much needed account of Purifoy’s contributions to the history of assemblage and the Los Angeles art scene. This important catalogue will be of interest to those in the disciplines of African American and diaspora studies, art history, material and visual culture studies, and sociology.

Leisa Rundquist
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of North Carolina, Asheville