The sign may not look promising, but it leads to desert magic.
A man named Noah Purifoy lived the last fifteen years of his life here and transformed a few acres of parched desert into a carnival of sculpture.
Two months ago I flew to Los Angeles, picked up a rental car and drove four hours away from L.A. and into the Mohave desert. My goal was a long weekend exploring Joshua Tree National Park. While browsing tourist brochures in town one day, I came across information about an open air sculpture “museum” devoted to the work of Noah Purifoy. I had never heard of him. Purifoy is well known on the west coast but I had spent my formative adult years in famously self-absorbed New York City. Few west coast artists were on my radar. I stumbled upon these inspiring acreage as naive as I could be, knowing nothing but the man’s name.
Innocence can be a good thing.
After I got home I did some research.
I learned that the man whose work enchanted me that afternoon in the desert had a fascinating life. Purifoy (1917 – 2004) worked in social work, child welfare, and education. He was, at one time or another, a window dresser, a program administration and an artist.
Born in rural Alabama to poor African American sharecroppers, he managed to get a good education, ultimately holding three degrees. Art was not part of his life until well into adulthood, after he had moved to L.A. Seemingly on a whim, he decided to attend Chouinard Art Institute in 1951, becoming by dint of his own insistence, Chouinard’s first full time black student. After art school he did high end furniture and store design for Hollywood types. Then, wanting to directly benefit people in need, he co-founded an art center in the poor neighborhood of Watts, adjacent to the Watts Towers.
A year later the neighborhood went up in smoke in the infamous Watts Riots. Always a tinkerer with found objects, and intrigued by the appearance of the ruins left after the fires and looting, Purifoy and some friends gathered pieces of debris from the ruined neighborhood, and a year later they put on a well received exhibit, 66 Signs of Neon.
That experience was the beginning of a different artistic impulse for Purifoy, an impulse that fully flowered years later in the hot Mohave desert, far from the city.
It’s hard for me, brought up middle class white, to imagine Purifoy’s layered understanding of race, culture and politics. He was just a generation or two away from slavery, he spent his earliest years in a segregated Alabama, he fought in WW II, was well educated…a heady mix of influences! I have my own deeply layered history with racial hatred – a very different one – and my own artistic influences. And I have no trouble relating to Purifoy’s work.
In the late 1980’s Purifoy moved to the desert from Los Angeles at the suggestion of a friend who owned land near the small town of Joshua Tree. Slowly, he transformed the property with his art. Now kept purposely low key by a foundation, the little publicized site is hard to locate. But once you find it, there’s no question that you’ve stepped into magic.
The amusing piece below was the first one I saw. It seems ready to accommodate a crowd that might squirm uncomfortably in their seats as they are pulled around the site while a docent spouts nonsense about the virtues of each installation.
But thankfully, there are no docents. You’re free to wander at your heart’s content, in the stillness, and likely alone, as I was most of the afternoon.
Purifoy did not believe in making art to convince people to think or feel something in particular. He thought that was an insult and would detract from the the essence of the creative process.
The sculpture below is maybe 25 feet long by 8 feet tall and is fashioned out of a multitude of discarded objects, arranged in the most ingenious ways. That’s a mirror on the right. The column on the left is covered with oyster shells. All of Purifoy’s work rewards close inspection.
I love this sculpture – there is such delight and freedom in it, but it maintains a strong formal presence. It’s made from dozens of heavy duty baking trays.
Evidence of Purifoy’s life here is doled out in tantalizing bits and scraps, like the art. The trailer where Purifoy lived is locked and the windows boarded up, allowing no curious peeks inside. But an open-air room near the trailer, featuring an old refrigerator and crooked metal shelves stacked haphazardly with books, reveals some of the practical and eccentric sides of the man.
Desert breezes weave through the room, rifling book pages, conjuring ghosts.
Purifoy stated that being human itself is not the essence of being, but rather the human in relationship to the world is the real essence of being.
Late afternoon sun reflects a Joshua tree on the door to the locked trailer. Inside and outside mingle, boundaries blur.
Piles of materials lie waiting in the open air for the next piece that will never be made. The entire property – sculpture, living spaces, trees, materials, desert sand – becomes a ready made sculpture for the opened eye.
Purifoy said that art and the creative process are different from one another; his impulse was to interrelate the the creative process with art, as he did with his own mind and body to make a whole person. He spoke of having oceanic experiences – levitating for hours in his room back in LA. He studied Jung and Freud, Husserl and Heidegger, developing his own philosophy by analyzing which parts of other people’s thinking made sense with his own experience in the world.
I would love to have had the opportunity to sit at his side out here and listen. But hours spent immersed in his work was ample food for my mind.
Below, three crosses dialog across the still desert air with three fetishes. Lively, loose, playful and profound, for me this piece expresses the essence of Purifoy’s work. Questioning religion, spirituality, art making traditions, and probably more I haven’t thought of, the piece rises above ideas of propriety or art history, charging the air with good-hearted wisdom.
Purifoy’s work out here in the desert seemed mostly unmolested as it weathers into eternity. Maybe I’ll return one day to find the colors a little paler, the angles even farther from 90 degrees, but I trust the human creative impulse will still ring loud and clear.
A complete oral history of Purifoy’s life can be found here. It was completed as part of a UCLA Oral History Program.
Purifoy’s sculpture doesn’t come on the market often. I was surprised to read that next month one of his sculptures will be up for bidding at the Swann Gallery in New York, part of a special auction of African-American art from the 60’s and 70’s.
An excerpt from a 2003 exhibition catalog from the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University:
From his days as an art student at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (1951-54), Noah Purifoy resisted the traditional
approach to art based on drawing and painting. Instead he chose to “find his own way,” inspired in part by the Dada
artist Marcel Duchamp, who challenged the boundaries of art and explored the connections between every day objects and
art. The Brockman Gallery director Dale Davis remembers Purifoy as an artist who challenged the community with his
art. “He was controversial, not well understood but interesting to those who gathered around the Brockman Gallery.”32
Purifoy’s background as a social worker made him conscious of the needs of at risk members of society, and he determined
to use his art to advance social change.
Both the Duchampian influence and his commitment to art as a means of social change influenced his choice of materials
and the form of his art. The debris from the riots provided a natural starting point for the materials, and the wasted urban
shapes already reduced to abstractions called for abstract forms in the art. “Purifoy was struck by a thought: What if
these people could look at junk in another way—as a symbol of their being in the world,….What effect could art have upon
the people who are living right inside of it? ‘Junk’ means wasted unusable material. Transferred to human beings it
means a life of despair, uselessness, and hopelessness. The resurrection of the discarded material could represent the resurrection
of the people who have been discarded by circumstance.”
The Purifoy desert site as featured in Atlas Obscura.
A bird’s eye view of the surrounding land. The site (not visible) would be in the middle. This gives you a good idea of the spare beauty of the desert here.
The catalog from the 66 Signs of Neon exhibit, with quotes by Purifoy and photos of the work.
Obituary from the LA Times.