Inspiration’s Residue

In October I went to southern California for a week to explore the Los Angeles area, and also, to see some art. I chose three places to look at art: The Broad (a contemporary art museum), the Watts Towers, and the Noah Purifoy Foundation’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. The Broad appealed because it’s a new museum, full of contemporary art. Watts Towers had been on my mind because I’ve known about this artistic landmark for decades, and I wanted to see it in person. I’d been to the Joshua Tree Outdoor Art Museum four years ago and was very impressed; this time I would have the pleasure of sharing it with my partner.

All three experiences were inspiring. This word “inspire” in English, derives from the Latin “in” – into – and “spirare” – breathe. When we’re inspired, we receive a breath from the world. For me, seeing art is one of the best ways to be inspired.

To illustrate that idea, here is a group of photos from The Broad, the Watts Towers, and the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum, along with a handful of photos I made on the trip that reflect the inspiration I reaped from the paintings, sculpture and architecture I saw.

 

1. The escalator at The Broad allows visitors to make a slow but powerful transition from the first floor entry to the upper level galleries.

 

Before I go any further, there is something that happened recently that for me, is related to the act of being with art. Last week Bernie Glassman died. He was my zen teacher. My experience at the Zen Community of New York, where I lived for five years in the early 1980’s, was transformative. What I learned during those years cannot be summed up easily, if at all, but it influenced the rest of my life.

In a 2001 interview during which he discussed his social action and interfaith work, Glassman said, “The goal is an infinite circle in which everything is included.” Impossible goals are conundrums to wrestle with, and to live by. He lived his, however imperfectly, and I’m sad to see him transition to another plane. But like any important inspiration or influence, once the spark is lit, the flames burn on.

The aesthetic impulse, spiritual grounding, and a deep love of nature are braided through my life: they’re intertwined tightly sometimes, loosely or not at all at other times, but they always continue. For you the threads are probably different, but in any case, I believe that impulses and inspirations from different parts of life strengthen one another when brought together. I think there is value in being aware of the braids of inspirations in our lives, and value in expressing them through art.

 

 

2. A sculpture made from baking pans, by Noah Purifoy. Purifoy moved from Los Angeles to a desert property in Joshua Tree in 1989, and created art there until his death in 2004, at age 82. He was an exuberantly inventive artist who primarily used discarded materials in his work.

 

3. The door on a large corrugated steel building created by Purifoy in the desert. His work is at the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney and other museums. A solo show at the Tilton Gallery in New York just closed last week.

 

4. A detail from the interior of a room-sized work by Purifoy, called Carousel. Purifoy’s story is a moving one: born poor and black in the deep south, in 1917, he eventually earned three college degrees, and was a respected political activist, deeply influenced by the infamous 1965 Watts riots. He worked with the physical and emotional residue from the riots, and ultimately filled ten acres of desert with a series of brilliant assemblages and installations.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning the Wheel

6. A discarded CD glinted in the dry grass on a roadside in the Malibu Hills. We had pulled over to take in the view, but the discs caught my eye. Investigating, I found more CD’s scattered on the ground. I turned away from the view of distant hills, and photographed CD’s in the grass instead.

 

7. Another CD on the roadside. Morning dew glistens on the underside of the disc. As I write this, fire rages here. Two people have died, hundreds have lost their houses, the ground is blackened, and I’m sure these plastic discs have been obliterated.

 

8. I didn’t disturb the CD’s, I just tried to photograph them where they fell. Why were they thrown on the side of the road? Some of them bore handwritten titles. Maybe they were someone failed Hollywood wannabe’s videos. The photos or the CD’s themselves could be the beginning of a story, or maybe the end of one….

 

9. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles was completed in 2003. Its gleaming stainless steel skin, stretching over the curved, sail-like forms, is a delight to photograph.

 

10. In the Broad museum’s galleries a model poses in front of a painting by Mark Tansey. She may be beautiful, but the audacity to stand in the way of visitors who were there to look at the art, not her, amazed me. It was not a professional photo shoot, it was just another couple of L.A. folks working hard to put an image across. The painting is called Achilles and the Tortoise.

 

 

 

 

 

12. A guard turned a chair to face the wall in a gallery at the Broad, and the shadows instantly morphed it into another (very temporary) artwork.

 

13. Safety fencing has fascinated me for years – I like the way the fence plays against its shadow: material and immaterial, both/and. Neither the fence nor the shadow is more important; they have equal weight.

 

14. More safety fencing, photographed while waiting for a take-out meal in Los Angeles.

 

15. The fence and shadow are given a solarized effect in Color Efex pro.

 

16. The Watts Towers were going through an extensive renovation when we visited, so we weren’t able to get as close as I would have liked. This street view gives an idea of the ordinary surroundings; the sculptural towers and mosaics, built by Simon Rodia from 1921 – 1954, are located in the working class Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 

18. Sunlight illuminates the tropical colors of a lounge chair on a Los Angeles deck, echoed by shadow patterns.

 

Last but not least, a bit of commentary from Noah Purifoy.

 

Additional Notes:

I’ve mixed the art and installations I saw with my own photographs in this post. I don’t mean to imply that what I made comes anywhere near what artists who worked years to achieve their visions – people like Ellsworth Kelly, Simon Rodia or Noah Purifoy –  have produced. Rather the idea here is about how seeing art inspires one to turn around and make art. Being present with good works of art awakens something inside us that can broaden our perspective, enable us to see the world differently, and open us to different points of view. We are inspired, and Bernie Glassman’s infinite circle expands. Taking the next step and translating that wider perspective into your own artwork is, well, a good thing.

ALL THE SOUNDS

On a cool October morning in 1972, I woke up with a plan: I would write down every single sound I heard on that day.  As soon as I was aware of a sound, I began to record what I heard in a small notebook.  At the end of the day, exhausted, I fell back into bed and noted the last sounds I heard; the final sound was “breathing.”   In the following days I went through the notebook, deciphering my scribbles and working out the grammatical kinks, resulting in a 60 page typed manuscript.

Since that day I’ve contemplated repeating the exercise, but the world is infinitely noisier now than it was back then.  In any case, the piece stands on its own: a lopsided record of an ordinary day, made extraordinary by a single-minded focus on sound.

Here are a few excerpts from the Sounds piece, interspersed with images to complement, rather than explicitly adhere to, the narrative.  I noted the time sporadically throughout the day, whenever I thought to look at a clock.  In this excerpted version a line:  ___________  means I’m skipping ahead to a later time in the day.  I begin here at 9:30 am, a few hours after I woke up.

9:30am

light switch turning on

light switch turning off

stomach grumbling

sparrows chirping

blue jay calling

door opening

clothes sliding against each other

door closing

clothes falling on chair

paper falling on the floor

door opening

paper bag rustling

jars hitting each other

door closing

door opening

glass hitting the counter

door closing liquid pouring door opening

door closing

blue jay calling

___________________________

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1:13pm

page turning

lid screwing on

swallowing

glass hitting other glass

paper rustling

biting

chewing

bell chiming

my voice

voice

match striking matchbook

paper sliding across table

paper rustling

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my voice

voice

footsteps

siren whining

horn honking

bell chiming

liquid pouring

voice

my voice

footsteps

humming

chairs scraping the floor

voices

footsteps

banging

match striking matchbook

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footsteps

crash

sirens whining

papers rustling

crash

piece of wood hitting table

voice

my voice

whistling

paper tearing

sandpaper sanding wood

swallowing

fingers scratching head

voice

my voice

burp

laughing

___________________________

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6:40

truck passing on the street

feet stamping

hands clapping

fingers snapping

elevator door closing

laughing

cooing

voice

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

footsteps

door opening

door closing

my voice

___________________

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voice

slide projector motor running

laughing

voices

chairs creaking

whispering

paper rustling

cigarette pack dropping into bag

voices

coughing

pad rubbing leg

blowing

laughing

slide projector clicking

voices

laughing

voices

laughing

slide projector clicking

____________________________

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8:40

my footsteps

ladder hitting the floor

my voice

voice

whistling

traffic passing on street

chewing

bus passing on street

hand rubbing my hair and face

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator running

fingers tapping

elevator door opening

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voice

radio

voices

laughing

whistling

plastic rustling

horn honking

voice

my voice

kiss

voices

kiss

laughing

my footsteps

my voice

kiss

my voice

nibbling

subway passing by

burp

motor in clock running

 

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A few words of explanation: Early that morning I made a decision to record sounds by naming what made the sound, rather than spelling out what the noise sounded like. I quickly realized that trying to write down the actual sound I heard was impossible, in most cases. Using a tape recorder to make an actual recording was not a consideration, because my primary interest was in exploring the relationship – or the space, in a way – between the sensory traces an object makes (our perception) and a record of those traces, a concern that interests me to this day. *

What is different about a sound you hear and the mute, written words that describe that sound? What is lost and what is gained when you step back from direct experience, and put something – in this case, the written word – between you and the experience? What does a day look like when the traces that are left of it are only a written description of the sounds that were heard and some bits of memory? How is the shape of the day itself altered when one sensory component of it moves into the foreground?

I was in my final year at School of Visual Arts in New York when I made the Sounds piece. I had moved back to my parents’ house temporarily, after losing a shared Brooklyn loft and all my belongings in an unfortunate incident. Each morning that semester I awakened to the quiet of suburbia, then I commuted by bus to the city and took the subway to school or to my part time job as an artist’s assistant at a studio on Irving Place. On this October day I went to work first, then walked to an evening art history class, probably with Carter Ratcliff.  Thankfully, those classes were usually a lecture with slides, and were relatively quiet.  But as soon as my friends figured out what I was doing, they made their best efforts to interrupt any quiet that would give me a rest from mad scribbling in my notebook by producing an assortment of difficult-to-describe sounds. A few are seen above, along with my foot-stamping frustration. Unsurprisingly, it was for me, a day of few words.

I used a small notebook to write down what I heard that day. When I was in a quiet place I would hear the page turning. Later, when I typed up the piece, I chose to follow the same page spacing as in the original notebook, so that “page turning” appears at the top of some pages. The piece was submitted as part of my final work for a fine arts degree, and was well received. Now the paper edges have softened, the cover is tattered, and rust is slowly eating into the binder’s metal insert.  I hope to transcribe and digitize it one of these days.

An earlier post on this subject with photos of the original manuscript is here.

The photos:

  1. A light fixture for sale at ABC Carpet and Home on Broadway, in New York City. I took the photo in New York on October 17, 2017, exactly 45 years after I made the Sounds piece.  What goes around comes around; the artfully distressed wall behind the light is reminiscent of the way walls actually looked in downtown lofts in the early 70’s. It wasn’t chic then, it was just what existed.
  2. A rope-tied rock serves as a polite barrier in a path at Seattle’s Japanese Garden.
  3. A view of trees outside a window. A small piece of blue glass in a wood frame rests against the window.
  4. A collection of insects at an eccentric museum inside a Roman Catholic seminary in Mount Angel, Oregon.
  5. At the Seattle Japanese Garden, workers erected a tarp to protect plants while they worked on a new addition to a structure in the garden.
  6. Hoses on the old wood floor of an auto repair shop in Ferndale, California.
  7. The view across the street from the ABC store window where the lighting fixture photo above was taken. This view hasn’t changed since I was in school.
  8. A single rubber glove dropped on a sidewalk in Seattle.

 

 

* A concern with investigating the difference between objects as they are and as we perceive them was prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s art world. It was a time when conceptual art questioned art itself, and minimalism was beginning to battle it out with post-minimalism, a term coined by art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, who taught at SVA.  Dorothea Rockburne, one of a number of working artists who taught at SVA then, would often bring up Kant in connection with ideas like this one, from Wikipedia:

Kant argued the sum of all objects, the empirical world, is a complex of appearances whose existence and connection occur only in our representations.[2] Kant introduces the thing-in-itself as follows:

And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.

— Prolegomena, § 32

 

 

 

 

 

The Three Graces

Ever since I first saw a reproduction of a statue of the Three Graces, I’ve been drawn to the idea and manifestation of Three Graces. In mythology the three graces are Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance). Who doesn’t need more of those qualities? Who would foolishly turn away from them?

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I walk though the Greek and Roman Galleries on my way to see another exhibit, and I’m stopped short by the vision of my old friends, the Three Graces. Full size, the hover above me but are not out of reach. The galleries are crowded with visitors but the familiar form burns into my retina, cancelling out everything else.

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The three women connect with each other, joined in a relaxed stance that belies the importance of their work: bringing joy and beauty to the world. Facing, not facing, facing, they include everyone in grace. Fellowship and power – the power of grace – are embodied in the feminine.

(Also called the Kharities (Charities), they attended Aphrodite and Hera. Dance, song, joy, goodwill and adornment can be added to their virtues. Cults worshiped them in southern Greece and Asia Minor, and many artistic renditions of them sprang up in pottery, on coins, in sculpture, etc. At first they were clothed, later they were shown naked. From Botticelli to Niki de Saint Phalle, artists continue to work the theme.)

The 2nd century AD statue was purchased in 2010 with the help of, among others, Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer. Mr. de la Renta, famous for clothing women elegantly, helped the museum keep these unclothed beauties in the public eye.

 

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Upstairs I noticed another rendition:

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The painting (titled “Meeting (The Three Graces)” is by Manierre Dawson, whom I hadn’t heard of. An American born in 1887 to an art-loving family, he studied civil engineering and worked in an architectural firm. In 1910 he traveled to Europe, where he looked at lots of art and attended a soiree at Gertrude Stein’s. What an education it must have been!  After returning to America he was producing innovative abstract paintings, one of which Stein purchased. He supported himself and his family by working a fruit farm at his family’s summer property in rural Michigan. The contradictions artists often live within:  Dawson purchased a Marcel Duchamp painting at the Armory show in 1913; on the farm he mastered orchard skills: what trees need to bear fruit.

In a 1913 journal entry he writes, “Why not stay here on the farm, add a few acres of level land … and earn a living from the soil, with every spare hour devoted, at times to the pleasures of married life, or at times to the pleasures of painting, sketching or carving.”  “The pleasures of” – the Three Graces’ whispered message is heard, and heeded. The farm became successful and Dawson devoted more time to making art, finally achieving recognition late in life with shows in Florida, and later New York.  He is considered an American pioneer of abstract art.

The day after visiting the Met, I was in Chelsea and again I was stopped short by a vision of Three Graces.

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A water offering sits at the base. Traffic streams down Ninth Avenue. The women are a counterpart to all that rushes and flows around them and I’m drawn in to the warm, sensual feeling emanating from gray stone.

One more image from New York seems to fit the theme:

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A tree mars the composition but you take what you can get when you’re taking pictures on the street. The women are part of a wedding party gathering for pictures on a Friday afternoon in Battery Park, in lower Manhattan. There are more than three people and they’re not all women, but Beauty, Mirth and Abundance are embodied here, on this October afternoon.

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Besides seeing various versions of the Three Graces, I made other connections on this trip, connections that are inevitable if you think about what you see, and unfetter your mind. There was the work of two Japanese American artists who were interned during WWII, Isamu Noguchi and Ruth Asawa. I don’t know if they ever met, but I saw connections in their experiences as Japanese Americans with complicated identities, in their mastery of materials and in the simplicity of form in their work.

Trees were a running theme, whether at an old African Burial ground in Queens or a busy downtown park. Monarch butterflies too, because they were flying at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Battery Park. Bamboo, featured in a Metropolitan Museum exhibit, also drew my eye at the Noguchi Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Architecture and ordinary buildings held my attention everywhere. The sensory overload was intense, but my eyes were hungry.

It felt good to return to the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TAKE TWO: NY/LA

A miscellany of things that caught my eye in New York and LA.

 

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Ah, New York pizza, how we missed it!  And the streets.

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At the Whitney, an employee replaces wicks in a huge wax sculpture, telling the onlookers, “You know, this is not a performance.” Right, just a gal doin’ her job…

The 8 foot sculpture of Julian Schnabel is by Urs Fischer, who often works with materials that decay and change with time. I wonder how much of the cast wax sculpture has melted since I was there a month ago.

Fischer says, “You could see an artwork as an offering. If you are ready to take something out of it, or if you reject it, it’s up to you. It’s there anyway. That’s what I like about art.” 

 

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Puzzling it out inside a Serra sculpture at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. The exhibit is up until July 29th. Go see it, and maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have your assumptions about space and physicality skewed, or at least, enriched.

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From the notebooks of June Leaf, at an exhibition titled “Thought is Infinite” at the Whitney through July 17th.

Born in 1929, Leaf has worked and shown in New York for many decades. If it wasn’t for this exhibition of her work at the Whitney I’d still be ignorant of her. She said in an interview: “You can make something and you see it. But then you have to spend your life to get the world to see it.”

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A table top -sized sculpture by Leaf, above, and part of another sculpture, below.

When asked if she thinks of herself as a painter or sculptor, Leaf said she thinks she’s an inventor.

When asked when she knows a piece is finished: “The image has to hit you back, for all of your gesticulating and fighting and stabbing and jabbing, being courageous or weak, or soft or hard. Something tells you when you’ve told the truth. It is a little like falling in love, not that it is equal to that. But, it is a similar moment, where you can’t argue with it; you can’t fake being in love. “

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A companion show at Thorp Gallery in Chelsea closed a few days ago, but Thorp regularly shows her work. Highly recommended.

Another show I enjoyed was Sigmar Polke at David Zwirner in Chelsea. Here is one painting from it, poorly shot with my phone:

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Coffee break under the Highline.

On the other coast, my eye was caught by this palm growing next to a fence. The dizzying angle was surely a reflection of my state of mind.

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At LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  An installation of antique lamp posts by Chris Burden contrasts new and old and repeats the verticality of a nearby high rise and the ever present palms.

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Detail from the kitchen of a private home in Hollywood Hills.

Below, an extraordinary tree at the Huntington Botanical Garden in LA. The silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), called palo borracho (drunken stick) in Spanish, grows in South American tropics and sub-tropics. Covered with sharp little spears to keep animals away, its pods produce fluff used like kapok, which it’s related to. Who could resist that figure?

 

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Beside a bonsai exhibit at the Huntington Botanical Garden, a guard began to quietly balance rocks on sculpture pedestals. He had an intense presence. He was heavyset with long, dark hair, and he wore Southwest Native American jewelry. Three young women watched him work, fascinated. It seemed to be something he would just do from time to time. One of women talked briefly and quietly to the guard. He was a man of few words. We heard snatches of the conversation: she was struggling with grief over a family member’s cancer, he offered to help her balance rocks; it would help her heal.

He showed her how, with almost no words – just 100 % concentration. After balancing a heavy rock on its narrow end herself, the woman broke into a smile and tears of joy.

It was one of those serendipitous moments that leave you breathless and without words.

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Framed in LA, above; frames in LA, below.

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More from the Melrose Flea market, a favorite LA Sunday shopping destination.

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Parting LA shot: a spindly cactus reaches for a better view at LACMA.

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Back home, the ubiquitous Doug firs, shot this time through a small pane of blue glass in a frame, balanced on a window. Sometimes the view from home is enough. Sometimes you need to fly somewhere, switch it up.  I’m thankful that I have both options.

 

 

 

 

 

SERRA at LACMA

LACMA, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a huge space devoted to a powerful sculpture by Richard Serra. I love Serra’s cor-ten steel pieces. They pull you in and push you away, and cannot be ignored. I remember the intense controversy in New York  after his “Tilted Arc” was installed at a plaza in front of a Federal office building, in lower Manhattan. It was 1981, Serra was a well respected artist, and he made a huge statement with “Tilted Arc.” It had a looming presence as it cut sharply across the open space. It wasn’t polite. Being near the work changed the way you felt, throughout your body.

It’s hard to describe the sensation of these pieces, but they can make you tingle, they can throw you off balance, they can draw you in or push you away, and yes, they can make people angry. Some people hated that piece, and after years of litigation and controversy, it was removed.

That fate seems unlikely for the Serra at LACMA.

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Serra had been asked to make the New York piece for that specific location so removal meant not only a loss to the plaza (at least in my view) but a loss for the sculpture, too, as it lost its context.

As he said, “Site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it is urban, landscape or architectural enclosure. My works become part of and are built into the structure of the site, and often restructure, both conceptually and perceptually, the organization of the site… I am interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context…”

The Los Angeles sculpture, called Band is immense, resting and flowing like a giant orange whale on the concrete floor, soaring twelve feet over your head, offering openings, sheltering spaces, and broad expanses of gentle curves to wend your way around.

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Serra was already a well respected artist when Tilted Arc was installed in New York, and feelings ran high on both sides of the controversy the sculpture engendered. The artist said that removing it would destroy the work, since it was built for the site. Local employees didn’t like the way the sculpture interrupted their habitual paths across the plaza. It was a clash of cultures, with art world stars at one end and government employees at the other. There was a trial and a public hearing. And finally the huge sculpture was removed in 1989.

Tilted Arc remains in storage. Serra doesn’t want it erected anywhere other than on the site it was designed for. Our loss.

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My camera was as overwhelmed as I was the day I experienced “Band” at the museum in Los Angeles. The camera wouldn’t focus. I grabbed my phone is frustration, because I really wanted to bring home a piece of this experience. Later, I got the camera to work.

But I really like the blurred photos. I’m posting both here, so you might feel a little of the disorientation that a good Serra sculpture creates.

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I’m sorry I didn’t take more photos, photos of the kids and adults playing in and out of the curves, photos from every angle, from near and far. But I remember the feeling of being next to it, walking along it, soaking in the strange mix of benevolence and power that it conveys. A good memory.

 

INWORLD

When the grayness of winter leaves me uninspired or there’s not enough time to get outside, there’s always the “backyard” – a patch of woods thick with native plants just outside the windows.

And if that’s not enough on its own, then it’s time to play with the camera and see what happens.

Dwelling in.

(the world)

Indwelling.

 

 

 

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Photos taken with a 20mm prime lens, wide aperture, and hand-held movement.

SHATTER

 

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SHATTER the light, the expectations.

BREAK up the view, the stillness.

ERODE the object, the function.

And never stop playing.

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Photographs:

Reflection and light broken up on a phone

Painted tarp on a chain link fence at a construction site

An “oops” taken out the window of a moving car

Reflections on a glass table

Rust on an abandoned car

Chair on a sidewalk

DESERT SERENDIPITY

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.

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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.

 

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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:

Noah Purifoy
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.

 

MOVED TO MAKE ART

ON A FEW ACRES OF DESOLATE CALIFORNIA DESERT, a man named Noah Purifoy settled in and went about making art for the final fifteen years of his life.  His outpouring of sculptures, many of which are big enough to walk through, are now an outdoor museum. After I managed to locate the museum at the end of a narrow track off an obscure dirt road in the Mohave desert, I was so taken by the creative energy pulsing through the site that I could barely hold still to take proper photographs.

Below is part of a large sculpture made from discarded objects, Purifoy’s material of choice. In this piece, fabric has been cut, torn, glued and stapled to a wood surface, then subjected to at least ten years of desert sun and wind.

Walking around and into the installations moved me to look carefully and think differently about materials and their relationships. Purifoy’s spirit is catching. I wanted to jump in and join him, even though he’s been gone for ten years.  Just to see what would emerge, I cropped the photo and converted it to black and white, revealing expressive folds and torn edges in the cloth that might evoke a landscape of thwarted desire. Or something else entirely – this is art that invites participation.  At the top of the page is my reflection in part of another sculpture which involves a broken mirror and glass on the ground, enclosed in a complex, room-like structure. Soon I’ll post more photos of Purifoy’s sculpture.

“I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be.”

Noah Purifoy  (1917-2004)

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge for this week is to share a photo of something that is art in your eyes. Purifoy’s work is art to me, and it moved me to tweak my photograph of his art, making more art…

More WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge “Art” experiences can be found here.

The Noah Purifoy Foundation:

http://noahpurifoy.com/foundation/foundation.html

 

STACKING SHAPES

On Top” is this week’s theme for the WordPress Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge.

Stacked on top of one another, toilet bowls are reminiscent of Greek columns, creating an amusing  “formal” entryway for a site specific sculpture.

 

A few miles outside the tiny town of Joshua Tree, in southern California, acres of eccentric sculptures sit unattended* off a dusty dirt road. The artist Noah Purifoy lived out his last years here. His trailer and supplies, worn and bleached from the relentless sunlight, are evidence of a life dedicated to art.  Scores of sculptures he fashioned using found objects and most anything else that came his way compete for your attention as you walk through the property. It’s essentially a huge art installation that feels a little like a carnival, a little like museum, and a lot like stepping into a very creative mind.

The photos show sections of one large piece. Climb the stairs, and you’re on a fanciful deck overlooking the Mojave desert. Ahead, a cut out view of a nearby Joshua tree is framed by scraps of wood, sheet metal, an old shoe and assorted sundries, arranged on top of one another in an assemblage that begs close inspection.

Purifoy was a fascinating man – take a look!

 

I’ll post more photos of his work one day soon.

And many more photo challenge entries are here.

*Though no one is at the site to monitor visitors, The Noah Purifoy Foundation does oversee and care for the work.  It’s not an easy place to find; the day I visited, only one other visitor was there.  The remoteness and lack of promotion have probably saved Purifoy’s work from vandalism.