An American artist


Dear Artist,

If you drive for about a hundred miles due east out of Los Angeles, you’ll reach the Mojave Desert and the edge of one of its National Parks, Joshua Tree. There, among a dusty network of roads to nowhere, a ten-acre plot sprouts with assemblages made from the detritus of 20th Century America. Repurposed and redesigned to tell new stories, they cut, wind-worn and bleached, into a cerulean, high desert sky.

No Contest (Bicycles,) 1991 by Noah Purifoy

No Contest (Bicycles), 1991
by Noah Purifoy (1917-2004)

Noah Purifoy was born in 1917 in Snow Hill, Alabama, where he, his twelve brothers and sisters and his parents, picked cotton. After serving as a Naval seabee in the Pacific front during World War II, Noah used his GI Bill benefits to get a master’s degree in social work from the University of Atlanta. He worked for awhile helping people with mental health problems adjust to independent living, then applied to art school. In 1952, Noah became the first African American to be accepted into the Chouinard Art Institute (now called CalArts). As part of the great migration, he left the South and settled in Los Angeles, earning his B.F.A in time for his 40th birthday.

Ode To Frank Gehry, 1999 by Noah Purifoy

Ode To Frank Gehry, 1999
by Noah Purifoy

As his abstractions began to get noticed within L.A.’s insular downtown creative scene, Noah longed to explore art’s function and potential power in wider society. In 1964, he founded Watts Towers Art Center in the community of Watts, south of downtown, where he mentored inner city kids and adults. In 1965, riots protesting police brutality erupted in the neighbourhood and burned much of the shopping area. Over five days, 34 people were killed and thousands arrested. Noah and his students salvaged the burned-out debris and cleaned, polished and mounted the rubble into assemblages. Noah’s exhibition at the Watts Towers Cultural Center cemented a devotion to the found object as a chronicle of social change.

In 1976, dreaming of art’s potential to change lives, Noah became a founding member of the California Arts Council, piloting artist-in-the-community outreach programs, including in prisons, schools, hospitals and seniors’ centers. Noah stopped making art for eleven years. In 1989, retired from the council and struggling to afford his studio space in an artists’ co-op downtown, Noah accepted an invitation to share a desolate plot of land one hundred miles inland with an artist friend. In this remote area, he set up a trailer in which to live and began to assemble again, pulling from the rubble of his new community.

65 Aluminum Trays, 2002 by Noah Purifoy

65 Aluminum Trays, 2002
by Noah Purifoy



PS: “Junk art, assemblage art… it’s as close to human existence because it’s all the castoffs we are utilizing here. I won’t say that assemblage art is much like life itself, but it’s closer to existence than any other art form. Because it’s your shit that we’re remodeling… and you got rid of it.” (Noah Purifoy)

Esoterica: In March 2004, Noah died after a cigarette caught fire in his trailer while he was sleeping. He was 86. Earlier, at the prompting of his long-time assistant and with the help of an historian friend, Noah had set up a foundation that could one day take over the sculpture park that was spreading across his property. “I hope my work provides inspiration for a person to do today what they couldn’t do yesterday, no matter what it is,” said Noah. “That’s art.”

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The illustrated monograph Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada by curators Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz, published to accompany Noah’s 2015 posthumous survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is here

“I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be.” (Noah Purifoy, 1963)