The art of Noah Purifoy (1917–2004)—political, avant-garde, outsider—defies easy categorization, as did his way of working. In an essay for the catalogue that accompanied “Junk Dada,” Purifoy’s 2015–16 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Franklin Sirmans described him as both an “artist’s artist” and an “artist-activist.” The terms would seem to contradict one another—the first suggesting a hermetic disposition, the second an inclination toward direct action. Purifoy, however, shifted between the two. In addition to being the first full-time African American student at LA’s Chouinard Art Institute (now known as the California Institute of the Arts), the artist was also a social worker, a maker of modernist furniture, a cofounder of the Watts Tower Arts Center, an arts-policy expert, and a rural philosopher. Today he is best known for his Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California, where he lived and worked from 1989 until his death. There, he solidified his commitment to found-object sculpture—a desire catalyzed by the 1965 Watts uprising—but on an architectural scale.
The exhibition of his work at Tilton Gallery featured wall-mounted assemblages created during a pivotal moment in Purifoy’s late career. After leaving a job at the California Arts Council in 1987, the artist kept a studio for two years in a former Masonic lodge in LA, then moved permanently to Joshua Tree. Much smaller than the monumental Outdoor Desert sculptures, these pieces show him exploring a range of techniques, embodied in intimately sized framed collages as well as in larger, more complicated constructions.
Purifoy’s works evince a commingling of inspirations. One can detect aspects culled from the artist’s upbringing in the American South, combined with his neo-Dadaist sensibilities and a Californian eccentricity, the last of which can be located in the astrological memorabilia, artisanal spice jars, metal jewelry, and cowboy accessories included throughout his oeuvre. Even the simplest pieces on view, collages of rusted metal and wood, revealed more than their humble constituent parts. An untitled work from 1987, for instance, resembled an ancient fertility goddess with a food-can lid for a head. Purifoy’s sculptural constructions, however, showcase his ambitious approach to architecture and design. The abstract Wooden Tile and Pavilion I, both 1988, built with organic, interlocking parts, suggested the influence of Kurt Schwitters’s mythologized Merzbau, ca. 1923–37. Another work, an untitled and undated construction containing an image of a cherry-topped sundae, an accounts ledger covered in dirt, and a saw, among other items—all of which were deftly nestled into the compartments of a large and irregularly shaped white frame/shelving unit—nodded toward Pop art in its humorously cockeyed take on commercial display.
Purifoy’s approach to artmaking in this period moved between dense metaphor and clear narrative. Two works piled with a surfeit of stuff, One White Paint Brush and a Pony Tail and Rags & Old Iron I (after Nina Simone), both 1989, paid homage to artistic creation and the iconic musician and civil rights activist, respectively. Simone is conjured through materials such as a tennis racket, a vintage mirror, golden slippers, and a plaque with the word FESTIVAL emblazoned across it, backward. Earl “Fatha” Hines, 1990, on the other hand, was a graphic and playful portrait of the eponymous jazz musician. Purifoy depicts Hines with a piano keyboard for teeth—he is surrounded by quilt-like bits of contrasting geometric-patterned fabric.
In Hanging Tree, 1990, a branch covered in dark fabric rested on top of cloth-covered panels featuring a bright-blue sky and a figure suspended in the middle of the composition with pale, straw-like hair. On one side of the subject’s chest—where the heart would be located—Purifoy has stitched a stained patch of fabric printed with apocalyptic messages, such as SEND JOHN WAYNE TO VIETNAM AND MARLON BRANDO TOO and COMPUTER’S KILLING THE HUMAN BRAIN. This foreboding, politically charged artwork, created at an isolated desert site, telegraphed a warning about technology, war, media, and homegrown racialized violence. Without question, the urgency of the artist’s dual commitment to art and social justice have only deepened with time.
— Wendy Vogel