Junk Dada: The Stories Behind Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Sculptures

Categories: Life Stories

Many artists, academics, and critics regard the late Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) as one of the most renowned American sculptors who worked in assemblage art. On June 7, LACMA will begin exhibiting a monographic exhibition of his works called Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, curated by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz. The show is designed to bring much-deserved attention to Purifoy's works, but what a lot of people don't realize is that there is already a monumental permanent exhibition six miles from the heart of Joshua Tree called the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, where the public can also learn about Purifoy's artistic vision during the last 15 years of his life, and it's all under the open sky.

Purifoy's background reflects not just an interest in making artworks from found objects, but also education and social work. Born in Snow Hill, Alabama, he taught high-school students industrial arts. He then earned a master's degree in social service administration from Clark Atlanta University. After serving in the US Navy during World War II, Purifoy found himself in Los Angeles, where in 1956 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Chouinart Art Institute. His experience in teaching and social services led Purifoy to become the first director of the Watts Towers Art Center in the 1960s. Following the Watts Rebellion in 1965, he worked on the traveling exhibition "66 Signs of Neon" with six other artists.


Then in 1976, Governor Jerry Brown invited Purifoy to become a founding member of the California Arts Council, where Purifoy served for 11 years bringing arts to children, prisoners, and the elderly. With such an impressive resume and such profound ties to Los Angeles, one can't help but wonder why Purifoy made the move to Joshua Tree in 1989 at the age of 72.

"Noah came out to the desert because he couldn't afford to live in Los Angeles," says Joe Lewis, Professor of Art at the University of California, Irvine and President of the volunteer-run nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation. "He had no choice. He was living on social security. He didn't have any kind of retirement fund."

It's here, about 140 miles east of Los Angeles, where Purifoy created his most awe-inspiring, large-scale junk-art installations. Yet while the move to Joshua Tree was born of necessity, it's apparent to anyone who visits the outdoor museum that in many ways, Purifoy was living the artist's dream. With ten acres of land as a blank canvas, Purifoy made over 50 objects out of found objects, but they weren't as easy to come by as in Los Angeles.

"Here in the desert, material objects are precious and people recycle everything," Purifoy wrote in a hand-out at the museum called "Joshua Tree: A Celebration of Junk Art." "There are swap meets, yard sales, and exchanges of materials going on all the time, leaving little or nothing for the junk artist. So, I collect materials that are not recycled in any other way and what I am doing with those objects is attracting attention."


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