Noah Purifoy Exhibit Showcases a Great Artist



THE current 30 Americans show at the Cincinnati Art Museum offers a good chance to see work by key African-American contemporary artists.

All well and good, but you should also definitely get to the Wexner Center for the Arts in nearby Columbus by April 10 to see the retrospective show of another contemporary black artist, the late Noah Purifoy.

It’s called Junk Dada, and I believe you’ll leave it impressed — not just by the quality of his work and vision, but also by his importance to the art and American social and political thought of our times.

The Wexner is the only museum to present this exhibition besides the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which organized it. That speaks to how little-known the Alabama-born Purifoy is outside of Los Angeles, where he lived and worked for much of his career. (He lived and worked as a social worker in Cleveland before moving to L.A. in 1950; he died at age 87 in 2004.)

But it doesn’t speak to how powerful and influential an artist he was, creating assemblage, collage, sculpture and environmental installations in a way that acknowledged outsider art but was also the intentional conceptual work of a trained artist.

Further, his art was community-based while also being forcefully individualistic. He eventually moved to the remote California town of Joshua Tree, where he used his vision and knack for salvaging material to create a new arts-based community in the desert. His Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum now outlives him, as part of the nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation.

I’d compare him favorably with Robert Rauschenberg, David Smith, Thornton Dial and Donald Judd, and also to today’s artists who reclaim throwaway objects, like Mark Bradford (who is in 30 Americans) and the Ghana-born El Anatsui.

His journey as an artist cries out for a motion picture. After moving to L.A., he received a B.F.A. at the Chouinard Art Institute, which is now the California Institute of the Arts. He was almost 40 when he graduated. With his background in both art and social work, he came out of school with a keen interest in non-traditional, socially relevant object making.

Junk Dada brings together some 70 of his pieces, showing off his gift in such works as the 1958 surrealist woodwork “Untitled (Bed Headboard)”; 1989’s wearily splendorous assemblage “Rags and Old Iron I (After Nina Simone)”; and 1967’s wonderfully colorful, mixed-media “Untitled,” which uses the frame of an umbrella as a starting point.

The show has much information and photographs about the Outdoor Museum as well as one of his greatest projects — organizing the 1966 traveling exhibit 66 Signs of Neon.

At the time, he was director of L.A.’s Watts Towers Arts Center, drawing inspiration from that monumental creation of the visionary Simon Rodia while also working to connect this idiosyncratic work of outsider art to the black community surrounding it.

After the Watts rebellion/riots of 1965, Purifoy and other artists created 66 sculptures from the debris. The exhibit features a photograph of two women walking past a mountain of post-riots wreckage to show the challenge. Anyone who has ever dismissed the importance of “junk” as art-making material should sense the meaning that Purifoy instilled into it here. The project is a landmark, combining foreboding about the fire next time with hope for a better future.

I stumbled onto Purifoy’s 10-acre Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum accidentally when visiting the nearby national park in the early-2000s. He had moved there in 1989, starting a new chapter in his life in a vastly different environment from urban L.A.

He had a tract of relatively barren land that was filled with salvaged, reassembled material that served as a portal into an alternate version of the “real” landscape. He transformed it all into a village where the pieces of wood and metal, the salvaged toilets and bowling balls and who knows what else all fit together. There were other people there, walking and talking, treating the site like both a museum and an amusement park.

It took awhile to learn about his background and understand the intellectual underpinnings and decades of experience behind his work.

After Junk Dada, I believe he’s so important he should have his own museum. Fortunately, in Joshua Tree he does. Everyone should go. More information:

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