Just months after I moved to Los Angeles 17 years ago, I first saw the work of artist Noah Purifoy when the California African American Museum curated a retrospective of his sly, inventive and visually arresting assemblage sculpture. Purifoy was a leader in the Los Angeles Black Arts Movement and co-founder of the Watts Tower Arts Center. He was at the Center when the Watts riot/uprising broke out in 1965. He wandered the streets, trying to make sense of it all and collected charred debris which he later, with fellow artist Judson Powell and others, turned into a traveling exhibit of art born from the ashes.
At the time of the CAAM exhibit, he had relocated to the high desert in Joshua Tree where there was space enough to create large assemblages. His work fascinated me but it didn’t occur to me you could just head out to Joshua Tree and visit.
Noah Purifoy died in 2004. It was only recently that I received an email that the Cultural Landscape Foundatino (TCLF) had named the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum as one of the most endangered cultural sites in the US. His work covers acres in the high desert, simply sitting there, waiting to be viewed, and the Noah Purifoy Foundation is deeply grateful for contributions to protect the site. For now, you can just show up. As the website doesn’t give directions–but the internet reveals all–I did find the address and will share it below. The website has much better photographs than these!
Most of his work isn’t overtly political. But here’s WHITE/COLORED. (The labels don’t show well here.) It may take explaining to the younger generation. Not only because it refers to the ugly past in the South when blacks were barred by custom and law from using the same facilities as whites, including water fountains–but with today’s bottled water and Sparkletts demijohns I’m not sure younger viewers will recognize the object on the left as a water cooler.
At the site, you will find salvaged objects that were once part of people’s daily lives and artwork that is deteriorating,
According to the brochure available as you enter, Purifoy used perishable materials because he was interested in seeing Nature participate in the creative process. Change and transformation over time were part of his vision. So would he want his assemblages protected and preserved?
What is ethical here? Do we respect the artist or the physical art?
Noah Purifoy worked as a social worker and it’s reported how disturbed he was by mental patients left to live in the street, by the poor, by the dispossessed. He made his sculptures out of society’s discarded things. But I believe he always thought, too, of the discarded people. I’d like to think if his work is preserved, it can be a declaration that no human being in the end is disposable.
Heading east on 29 Palms Highway in Joshua Tree, CA, turn left (north) at the light at Sunburst. The road stays paved for about 3 miles. Continue about a mile on gravel to Aberdeen. Turn right. Aberdeen is paved–for awhile. You’ll reach the intersection at Center, just before Aberdeen becomes a dirt road. Turn left on Center (also dirt) and go a short distance to Blair. Right turn and you’ll see acres of Noah Purifoy’s art coming up on your left. A little further on you’ll find a small designated parking area on your right.
Enjoy! and then spend the rest of the day at Joshua Tree National Park to see Nature’s assemblage art.