Despite the existence of a 10-acre sculpture park devoted to his work in Joshua Tree, CA, Noah Purifoy was largely unknown to the mainstream art world until the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time exhibitions shed light on the artist, his career and his contributions. A single junk assemblage by Purifoy appeared in Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970, at the Getty proper and a half-dozen works were featured in Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at the Hammer. It is perhaps as a result of this newfound exposure that America Is Hard to See, the exhibition that opened the Whitney Museum’s new building, presented a work by Purifoy in its “Scotch Tape” section devoted to assemblage and collage (see image below right). The PST exhibitions also apparently signaled to Franklin Sirmans, Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA, that it was time to mount a Purifoy retrospective, the first major exhibition of this artist’s work to appear outside the confines of a specifically African American museum.
The exhibition is fascinating and the work stunningly installed (more on this later). While any number of pieces are interesting in and of themselves, Purifoy’s modus operandi–assemblage or the construction of works of art out of found and junk materials–is hardly original. Precedents within the history of Twentieth Century art abound, from the Dada of Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp to the work of Robert Rauschenberg, the L.A.-based Ed Kienholz and many others. However, Purifoy’s assimilation of known forms to politically- and socially-motivated ends together with the the power, creativity and design sense that underline his production make the resurrection of Purifoy’s art and person in Sirman’s show an historically significant event.
Born on a farm in Snow Hill, Alabama, in 1917 and raised in Birmingham at a time when segregation was in full effect, Purifoy went on to attain several academic degrees, first in teaching, then in social work and finally, in art. He was reportedly the first African American student to be enrolled full-time at the Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts), where he received his BFA in 1956. For the better part of the next decade, Purifoy worked as a designer of high-end furniture. Shortly before the Watts Rebellion of August 1965, Purifoy co-founded the Watts Tower Art Center (adjoining Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers), which provided workshops for local youth. In the aftermath of the riots, using the charred rubble he found around him, Purifoy produced his first body of assembled junk sculpture.
To mark the Watts uprising and strengthen the black community’s solidarity, he organized the group exhibition, 66 Signs of Neon, which consisted of 66 paintings and sculptures that incorporated the riot’s debris (a few of these works are included in Sirman’s exhibition.) 66 Signs of Neon, which opened in LA in 1966, travelled across the United States and to Europe, being shown, among other places, at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in DC and in Berlin through 1969.
Although Purifoy’s use of found and castoff objects has its source in social upheaval and would be expected to be fiercely politically charged, few of the pieces in Sirman’s show display the anger and bite of the work of Black artists ranging from Charles White and Melvin Edwards to David Hammons and Betye Saar to Adrienne Piper, Kara Walker and Rashid Johnson, whose work tends to pack a punch with regard to exposing and exploding stereotypes of race and to otherwise addressing issues of African American identity. Instead, works like Purifoy’s Untitled (Assemblage), 1967, composed of disparate objects (shoes, hairbrushes, doorknobs, an umbrella, a framed school diploma and much more), is characterized by gentle whimsy and nostalgia. Interestingly, this densely layered but seemingly shallow-in-content work, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, was once owned by the distinguished scholar of African American art, Dr. Samella Lewis, and was featured in the Corcoran’s group exhibition to which she contributed an essay, I Remember: Thirty Years After the March on Washington: Images of the Civil Rights Movement, 1963-1993.
That Purifoy was indeed angry and embittered, however, was clearly expressed in his solo exhibition held at the alternative, “Black Arts Movement” Brockman Gallery in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1971. Entitled Niggers Ain’t Never Gonna Be Nothin–All They Want to Do is Drink n’ Fuck, this exhibition is well documented in the LACMA show. The exhibition took the form of an environmental installation representing a roach-infested apartment for a family of ten complete with rotting food. Following the exhibition, Purifoy stopped making art, devoting himself instead to social work and then to public policy work, serving on the California Arts Council, for which he instituted art programs for children and for prison inmates.
Purifoy returned to artmaking in 1989, at the age of 72, when he moved to the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree. There he began to construct sculptures that he set into the landscape. It is at this point that the LACMA installation opens up so as to give space, light and air to the large-scale and even monumental assemblages that were transported from the Mohave Desert to the museum’s galleries. Assuming the forms of totems or of vast stage sets, these pieces elevate, uplift and suggest multiple possible narratives. It is evident that Purifoy was making these pieces for himself, for the sheer joy of creation. Universal in their form of address, they are among the strongest pieces in the show.
Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada will be on view at LACMA through September 27, 2015.