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Noah Purifoy's art gave new life to old junk. Now it's going to LACMA

by Gideon Brower | The Frame

Welcome sign to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree, California. Gideon Brower

Out in the Mojave Desert, not far from Joshua Tree, down a narrow paved road and then a bumpy dirt road — and then an even bumpier dirt road — is the junk wonderland known as the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum.

Sprawled across 10 acres of scrubby desert floor are dozens of large sculptures and assemblages made from cast-off building materials, toilets, bowling balls, car tires and a myriad of repurposed household objects. A sculpture that twists like a water slide is made from the kind of flat aluminum sheet pans you’d find in a bakery. A train is constructed from bicycle wheels, beer kegs and vacuum cleaner parts. Carefully arranged tableaus of weather-beaten objects and furniture look like sets for a surreal Western.

Artist Noah Purifoy made all of these pieces when he lived here from 1989 until his death in 2004, says Franklin Sirmans, the head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Sirmans and art historian Yael Lipschutz are co-curators of Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, an exhibition that will bring eight of the desert sculptures to LACMA, along with a sampling of the artist’s earlier work.

In a way, the show is a homecoming for Purifoy. The African-American sculptor and visual artist was born in Alabama but spent much of his adult life in Los Angeles, attending art school, doing social work and helping to establish the Watts Towers Art Center. It was in L.A. that Purifoy started working with junk, making artwork out of charred debris he gathered after the Watts riots in 1965. “That experience really set him on his path as an artist,” Lipschutz says. “He never used new materials again.”

Some art critics think the desert landscape and the quality of the light drew Purifoy to the Mojave at the age of 72. But Joe Lewis, president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation, says the artist wasn’t thinking about aesthetics when he accepted an invitation to live in a small trailer on a friend’s desolate property. “Living in Los Angeles was very expensive then, as it is now,” Lewis says. “He was broke. He really had nowhere to go.”

Pat Brunty is the caretaker of the 10-acre site. She met Purifoy during the artist’s final years, when he hired her and her late husband to help straighten up the place. "He [said], 'When you do things out here, you do it my way or you don't,'" she recalls. "And he [said], 'If you can't follow my rules, then I don't need you.'" Purifoy soon warmed to the Bruntys, however, and enlisted them to build one of his final works, a wooden structure based on a gallows featured in the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie, "Hang ‘Em High."

"We said, 'We’re not an artist or anything,'" Brunty says. “He [said], 'You will be, [by the] time I get through with you.'" Today, the stark white gallows stands tall among the other outdoor installations — but you’ll have to go to the desert to see it. It’s not among the works making the trip to LACMA.

Knowing Purifoy had to leave Los Angeles because he couldn’t sell his work, one wonders how he’d feel about being shown at LACMA now, 10 years after his death. Lewis says the artist wasn’t thinking about fame or money when he turned all that junk into art in the middle of nowhere. “I think he did it because he had to do it,” Lewis says. “He came out here and said, I’m gonna make me a world. And he proceeded to do that.”

Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada can be seen June 7, 2015 – February 28, 2016 at LACMA.

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