LACMA Brings Noah Purifoy Out Of The Desert

John Welch

Noah Purifoy, Black, Brown and Beige (After Duke Ellington), 1989, 68 x 113 in., Sue A. Welsh Collection, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo courtesy Noah Purifoy Foundation by Seamus O'DubslaineNoah Purifoy: Junk Dada (June 7 - September 27, 2015) at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA), the first major museum exhibition since the father of the California Assemblage School's death in 2004, is both a visual and cerebral tour de force. This is fitting for an artist whose work consists of equal parts—art, spirituality and theory.

The show is organized by Franklin Sirmans, Terri and Michael Smooke Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA with Yael Lipschutz, independent curator, and is arranged in loose chronological order focusing on distinct stylistic periods of the artist's life. It includes a dozen assemblage works from his landmark exhibition, 66 Signs of Neon (1966), which features Dada-inspired works made from the debris of The Watts Riots (1965) touring the U.S. extensively before being sent to Germany in 1972 by the U.S. Office of Information; printed images from Purifoy's solo exhibition at the Brockman Gallery (1971) which featured his controversial installation and accompanying artist statement, "Niggers Ain't Never Gonna Be Nothing—All They Want To Do Is Drink and Fuck" round out the show.Installation photo from 66 Signs of Neon touring exhibition, circa 1966. Photo courtesy Noah Purifoy Foundation.

This provocative statement, and the Brockman Gallery exhibition, were in keeping with the postwar period’s fascination with street art and constituted a Ducahmpian approach to the fire ravaged alleys of Watts after the riots according to Lipschutz. Purifoy’s artist statement is no doubt an appropriation of a prevalent stereotype about blacks coopted to elicit thought and confront beliefs. In effect, it turns hatred or fear on its head.

Purifoy's final years creating works in isolation (1989-2004) at Joshua Tree, CA were the result of his realization that art would not prove the panacea for civil rights and social justice he had once believed earlier in his career, says Sirmans.

 “…Once…I [Purifoy] thought art was the only problem-solving mechanism left to poor people…."

The artist stopped making art from 1976-87 due to disillusionment. "He later came to realize that he was not going to stop making art [in life], but he held no illusions about its ability to effect change and so resigned himself to working in isolation, moving out to Joshua Tree”, Sirmans explains in his catalog preface to the exhibition. LACMA director Michael Govan says the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum—which resulted from the artist’s self-imposed desert isolation—is a national treasure.

The genius of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are the multifaceted points of entry they offer the expert or layman to Purifoy's art and life. The artist was born in Selma, Alabama in 1917 and died in 2004. His lifetime The first major African American-owned gallery in Los Angeles: Brockman Gallery, Degnan Blvd., Leimart Park, c. 1967. Photo courtesy Brockman Archives.encompasses most 20th century touchstones of the African American experience: growing up in the Jim Crow South; serving in World War II; becoming part of The Great Migration (in his case moving West instead of North) and the Civil Rights Movement.

Noah Purifoy, Gas Station, 1992, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo courtesy Noah Purifoy Foundation.Specific to Purifoy's experiences, and also influential on his art, are his formal education at Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal State) as one of its first African American students in the early 1950s, where he was exposed to and fell in love with Dada, as well as a range of art theorists and philosophers; his work as a social worker, arts educator and co-founder of the Watts Tower Arts Center; and his conscious choice to stop making art and instead pursue arts advocacy and social justice as an arts advocate, educator and appointee to the California Arts Council (CAC) 1976-87 where he initiated programs such as Artists in Social Institutions which brought art into the state prison system.Noah Purifoy, The Kirby Express, 1995-96 with The White House, 1990-93 in background, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©2014 Fredrik Nilsen.

The life experience, activism, artistic practice and philosophical musings that are intricately interwoven in Purifoy's art are expertly untangled and made accessible for the public with this exhibition. It also provides a highly readable, yet substantive catalogue, containing insightful essays; a comprehensive chronology of the artist’s life; and panoramic illustrations of large scale environmental art from the desert at Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum by Fredrik Nilsen.

In spite of his compelling artistic legacy, Purifoy is little known relative to L.A.-based contemporaries such as Ed Kienholz (1927-1994) and Betye Saar (b.1926) and the younger John Outterbridge (b.1933) and David Hammons (b. 1943); and unlike more famous New York School assemblagists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Purifoy's artistic intent and legacy was perhaps, colored, by his active engagement with art for social purposes, and his insistence on removing art from its role as commodity.

Noah Purifoy, Gas Station, 1992, photo taken in 2014, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©2014 Fredrik Nilsen.During an interview shortly after the exhibition opened, Sirmans said that he does not privilege the presentation of Purifoy’s work as ‘object’ by downplaying any of its conceptual or spiritual-philosophical components, when asked about this aspect of the artist’s oeuvre. Purifoy subscribed to phenomenology — the study of consciousness as experienced from the subjective point of view. He is a philosophically erudite artist who is grounded in the black Southern vernacular tradition. His assemblage approach is somewhat akin to that of well-known, self-taught artist Thornton Dial (b. 1928) who, like Purifoy, is from Alabama. Dial creates expressive works with junk closely adhering to what Sirmans calls a black aesthetic.  

Purifoy’s work is never far removed from the spiritual and philosophical currents in art, and is not well understood as a traditional art ‘object’ with theory or concept as a secondary consideration.

Noah Purifoy, Ode To Frank Gehry (1999), installed at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for the exhibition Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, June 7, 2015-September 27, 2015, © Noah Purifoy Foundation, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

The reception of Purifoy’s art as encompassing spirit, philosophy and theory in equal measure with formal elements and artistic technique may be seen to set his work apart from the hierarchical approaches often associated with the connoisseur’s understanding of the object. The old chestnut of —object v. theory— from 1980-90s academic debates has always spoken more to the art historian than the casual museum visitor. Yet, within the context of Purifoy’s art-making, we may hazard a guess on his take about such debates with his embrace of spiritual and philosophical considerations in art-making as integral to the form and intent of his art. He isolates himself by the end of his career but his approach to art practice throughout his life hews closely to the belief that art encompasses much more than the production of ‘objects’.

Noah Purifoy, San Francisco Oakland Bridge, 1990, and Bowling Balls III, 1994 in background, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©2014 Fredrik Nilsen.Sirmans began thinking about an exhibition on Purifoy while a curator at the Menil Collection (Houston, TX) in 2008. He credits Walter Hopps, who first showed Purifoy on the east coast in 1968, and who was founding director of the Menil Collection and former director of the Pasedena Art Museum, as an early influence on his thinking about the artist.

Other influences drawing the curator to this project were what Sirman's characterizes as Purifoy's "twoness" or his DuBoisian Mask. This duality is found in Purifoy’s two loves—art and social work—which Sirmans claims provided the artist with a double consciousness as both artist and activist. However, he maintains Purifoy, unlike most artists inclined toward activism, made discrete practice of his two sides and may now be seen to have been prescient about today's contemporary artists’ struggles when engaging the relationship between art and activism in their work.

Distilling Purifoy's essence is complex. Unspooling the intricate facets of his life, artistic practice and spirituality, linking those aspects to formal and conceptual analyses of his work, can seem an insurmountable feat for general audiences.  As aforementioned, Sirmans and Lipschutz are masterful at the task. Summing up the artist's oeuvre and legacy Sirmans says "…at the core of Purifoy's lexicon is the desire to work with and find beauty in what has been discarded—to give new life to an object by changing its context, transforming it from junk to artwork…”

Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell in the Watts Towers Art Center, 1966. Photo courtesy Noah Purifoy Foundation

Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit (1983) and Ishmael Reed's explorations of Vodun rituals and practices greatly informed Sirmans and Lipschutz' NeeHooDoo exhibition (Menil Collection, 2008) which focused on an elusive philosophical search in art for an ancestral and spiritual past. This precedent aligns well with their interest in philosophical and spiritual yearnings in Purifoy's art here and can be seen to share affinities with other African American artists concerned with social justice, spirituality and abstract expression such as Norman Lewis (1909-1979) and Sam Gilliam (b. 1933).

Noah Purifoy, Untitled (Catamarans), 1997, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©2014 Fredrik Nilsen.While Sirmans' masterful distillation of the artist and his work is largely telescopic in his preface and statements in the catalog, Lipschutz' artful essay offers readers a microscopic or closer reading of art from Purifoy’s mature period, that which is now considered his magnus opus, 120 land art or environmental sculptures at the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum, on a ten acre site in the desert, two hours from Los Angeles.

Lipschutz gives us background scaffolding to surmount  the herculean task of interpreting Purifoy by reminding us first that he began this final project at age 72, with a lifetime of living and art practice to bring to his endeavor, (e.g. the horrors of segregation and the richness of jazz and blues (1917-1942); service in WW II as a Seabee in the South Pacific as part of a construction battalion (1942-1945); a stint as a commercial designer focused on interior design, construction and window displays (1956-64); extensive work developing arts programming for children and prisoners (1964-66/1976-87); interface with the history of revolt at Watts (1965); and a career-long love of the found object).

Her essay then moves us through many facets of Purifoy’s conceptual frameworks, formal approaches and art practice.  These include his work with nature as in the interplay between light and three dimensional form (Aurora Borealis, 1995); a fascination with entropy —erosion by animals, wind, water or fire —on artwork (Gas Station, 1992), an approach reminiscent of Robert Smithson's canonical Spiral Jetty; and associations elicited by his land art and solitary production with the individualism and ruggedness of the old American West.
Noah Purifoy at Joshua Tree, 1991. Photo from article in IRAAA, v. 10, n. 4Lipschutz also impresses upon us the significance of oceanic experiences, which are psycho-spiritual feelings of 'eternity', to the artist's beginnings after the Watts riots, and the role of philosophers such as Heidegger and Husserl on the artist's concept of 'oneness' with the inherent features of the desert in his art making.

Purifoy’s engagement with memory and form (sculpturally recording lifetime experiences) is found in works such as Commissary (1994) or San Francisco Oakland Bridge (1990) and are connected, according to Lipschutz, to the philosopher Novalis, whose dictum that "all philosophy is homesickness," relates Purifoy's aesthetic explorations with land art at Joshua Tree to cosmic loneliness and the quest for the paternal home the philosopher finds in human longing.Noah Purifoy, From the Point of View of the Little People, 1994, Mixed-media construction, 120 x 96 x 18 in., Noah Purifoy Foundation, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©Frederik Nilsen.

Lowery Sims contributes an excellent essay here also, grappling with aspects of Purifoy's legacy, and reinterpreting previous readings (e.g., reconnecting the 1960s California assemblage movement  to the precedent of The Art of Assemblage exhibition at MOMA in 1961, organized by William SeitzNoah Purifoy, Aurora Borealis, 1995, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©2014 Fredrik Nilsen., rather than buying into it as a ‘home-grown’ phenomenon; pointing to Duchamp’s use of ready-mades as a critique or parody of bourgeois aesthetics at one end of a spectrum employing found objects that is apart from Purifoy’s project to use junk to accentuate consumer waste and dereliction; and supporting  the view that Purifoy’s engagement with art from the 1960s forward, especially his work as an arts advocate with the founding of the Watts Towers Arts Center, and membership on the California Arts Council (CAC), changed thinking at the national level about the distribution of the art experience through co-mingling of artists, schools and social institutions.

Noah Purifoy, No Contest (bicycles), 1991, Assemblage sculpture, 168 x 252 x 24 in., Noah Purifoy Foundation, ©Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photo ©Fredrik Nilsen.Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada is best thought about as a legacy exhibition providing a thrilling sweep across the broad expanse of an artist's mind and art. It brings forward the contributions of an ethereal art purposely removed from concerns of preservation and commodification, yet as ‘fine’ in its edifying purpose and sophisticated formal approaches as any art so designated. Franklin Sirmans positions Purifoy to rightfully enter the canon of 20th century art. 

As a curator on the rise and reaching his summit, Sirmans’ career trajectory and background as arts professional will no doubt interest many young aspirants. Other exhibitions organized by Sirmans at LACMA include: Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting (2014); Fútbol: The Beautiful Game (2014); Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals (2012) and Glen Ligon: America (2011).

Franklin Sirmans, Terri and Michael Smooke Curator and Department Head, Contemporary Art. Photo ©2013 Museum Associates/LACMAMost recently, he served as artistic director of the international contemporary art biennial, Prospect 3: Notes for Now in New Orleans (October 25, 2014-January 25, 2015). The three-month exhibition showcased  the work of more than 50 leading and emerging contemporary artists from around the globe at venues across New Orleans; engaging artists in interpreting its rich culture, traditions and people—past and present.

Sirmans comes to curating from a writing and editorial background serving before 2006 in positions at Dia Center for the Arts, Flash Art magazine and ArtAsiaPacific, while lecturing at colleges and universities. He explained in a recent interview that his move from writing to curating was a natural evolution as he moved from wanting to write about art to envisioning and realizing it in spaces.

Franklin Sirmans won the David C. Driskell Prize awarded by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta in 2007.  With his endowed position at a major museum, he has become a bright light in the arts profession.  And now his achievement with Purifoy cements that reputation. 

The photograph shown here of Noah Purifoy at Joshua Tree, 1991, from the article, "Noah Purifoy of Joshua Tree," in the International Review of African American Art, IRAAA, v. 10, n. 4 (1993), did not have a photo credit in the caption. The photo probably was taken by the author of the article, Sue A. Welsh, who was a long time associate of the artist.

John Welch, Ph.D., is associate editor and staff writer at IRAAA+ and a former manager and educator in art museums.