LOS ANGELES — Noah Purifoy could be considered something of a late bloomer. He was already in his thirties when he moved from his native Alabama to Los Angeles to attend Chouinard Art School (now CalArts). It wasn’t until 1989, at the age of 72, that he traded the urban jungle for the desert, where he created his magnum opus, the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. And now, over a decade after his death, he is finally getting a major museum retrospective, Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). (A much smaller one was held in 1997.) It was well worth the wait.
A pioneering Southern California assemblage artist — alongside Ed Kienholz, George Herms, and others — Purifoy transformed the detritus around him into aesthetically and conceptually rich works of art. He drew on the traditions of European Dada and Surrealist artists who appropriated bits of material culture into their artwork, and applied them to the junk of the urban (and later rural) landscape of the United States. Purifoy was also deeply dedicated to the notion of art as activism, even walking away from his art career for a number of years to focus on social worker and arts education. He was the founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in the mid-1960s and served on the California Arts Council for 12 years, establishing programs that brought art and artists into social institutions like schools and prisons.
Despite his important role as an artist and educator, institutional recognition had for the most part eluded him. His underrecognized legacy was one motivation for co-curator Franklin Sirmans. “He had such a heavy influence on artists like David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Mel Edwards — artists that I knew of and I was trying to make sense of — and it always led back to him,” Sirmans told me as we walked through LACMA’s galleries last week. He found a fitting co-curator in Yael Lipschutz, who first met Purifoy on a trip to the desert when she was 17. She later wrote her PhD thesis on the artist and serves as the archivist for the Noah Purifoy Foundation.
Sirmans and Lipschutz organized the exhibition not chronologically, but thematically, drawing connections between works created years, even decades apart. The oldest work in the show is a wooden headboard from 1958, created when Purifoy was working as a furniture designer. The piece has the organic, modernist feel of a Noguchi, and is an early example of his fusion of the functional and the aesthetic. “It’s a nice segue between the idea of what art can be, having the power to affects us psychologically or visually — and the idea that it comes from, in many ways, a utilitarian place as well,” notes Sirmans. Nearby, the curators have hung wooden junk assemblages from 30 years later that riff visually off the headboard.
From there, the exhibition goes in numerous directions, encompassing a surprising range of materials and forms all made out of essentially garbage. Wood, metal, glass, and textile are repurposed, combined in unexpected ways and given new meaning, while still revealing a glimmer of their former life. Some assemblages retain the grime and decay of the junk yard, while others, like a series of bright, geometric textile works inspired by jazz, show few signs of their scrappy origins.
Installed here for the first time since the 60s are selections from 66 Signs of Neon, the exhibition that Purifoy put together in the wake of the 1965 Watts rebellion. Purifoy and other artists, including Judson Powell and Deborah Brewer, used debris they collected around fire-ravaged Watts to create works reflecting the racial injustice, oppression, and rage experienced by African-Americans that bubbled over during the summer of ’65. 66 Signs set him on the path of using society’s cast-off and damaged goods that he would follow for the next four decades.
Junk Dada also includes documentation of a controversial 1971 exhibition at the Brockman Gallery, one of the earliest galleries to focus on African-American Art in LA. Titled Niggers Ain’t Gonna Never Be Nothing — All They Wanna Do Is Drink and Fuck, it recreated a run down shotgun house, inhabited by a family of 11, complete with rotting food in the fridge and roaches crawling on the floor. One of his first forays into “environmental art,” it prefigured the open-air installations he would start making in the desert almost 12 years later.
Perhaps the exhibition’s biggest coup is the presentation of eight large-scale works transported from Joshua Tree. “One of the things that I find quite amazing is to see the work out of context in the museum setting,” Joe Lewis, the President of the Noah Purifoy Foundation told me. “The work’s always been very powerful, but when you strip it of its environment, it changes a lot of things in the work. You can see another layer of the aesthetics, but also the conceptual process that he went through. He was very concerned with creative process and in this context you can really see that at work, especially in the ways it’s installed.”
Whereas even large-scale works are dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape, they have a certain monumental quality in the museum. A few of the works placed outside enter into a conversation with the museum’s architecture instead of distant mountain ranges which frame their original setting. The one drawback of the installation is that these desert works are placed on sand-covered plinths, which literally distance viewers from them instead of recreating the intimacy of their original setting.
Given his influential role in the art of the United States, and specifically the Southern California scene, why has it taken so long for Purifoy to have a major retrospective? Sirmans suggests that the market may be responsible. Although Purifoy is represented by some major galleries, like Jack Tilton, much of his work resides in his desert museum, outside of the commercial sphere. “You don’t have a gallery beating down curators’ doors, trying to create markets, so we worked with the Foundation in order to make the show happen,” he said. Lewis brings up the predominantly white, male art establishment as a reason for the oversight. “Black people, people of color, and women, we’re not part of the canon and the tradition, and invisible in that sense,” he said.
Regardless of the reasons for the delay, Junk Dada is an overdue and welcome opportunity to explore the work of an influential, but underappreciated American artist and activist. “When you walk around this show, you understand why he is important, besides all the connections you could make to any African-American — but not only African-American — artists who came through California in the past 60 years,” said Lewis. “You can see this aesthetic connection to a lot of things, whether it be Arte Povera, Minimalism, Expressionism, It’s all there. The beauty of his practice is that it’s very wide, very broad, very deep, and moving.”
Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada runs through September 27 at LACMA (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles)