Over a decade ago when I was studying Fine Art at uni, I was focusing my ideas on technology and modern times via the medium of video. My degree show piece was 20 plus multi screen video installation. I trawled skips, dumps, car boots, and street corners to obtain TV’s that covered different era’s of technology to achieve the dystopian scene I was looking to create. When I first discovered the work of Noah Purifoy I was instantly drawn to it due to it’s relation to some of my old uni work. I loved how it looked in it’s outdoor desert setting too, as I instantly associate desert scapes with sci- fi classic films like Blade Runner (which featured heavily in my dissertation) and Mad Max. I love the use of the industrial, reflective, technological materials against the warm gold smoothed sand dunes of these eerily quiet yet vast landscapes.
On our road trip to Joshua Tree we decided we’d stop off at anything we thought ‘looked cool’ – to explore, take in the unique feel of these obscure and quirky findings, and capture some images to enjoy some creativity of our own. The Noah Purifoy museum was our last stop, and by that point the heat was almost unbearable. Breathing in hot air and feeling the top of heads turn into temporary hobs. Thankfully it would be much cooler once we finally arrived at our Air BnB, which had a consistent cooling and relieving breeze. But as we circled round the exhibits and sculptures of this unique art destination, we were having to concentrate hard to survive- breathing with thought and intention, and widening our eyes to maintain some controlled movement to avoid passing out from heat stroke. Any plans for elaborate video shoots went out the window pretty much as soon as we abandoned the air conned sanctuary of the SUV. Here are some stills we got inbetween darting from one shaded spot to the next, all safe zones created by a a bit of metal overhanging from one of Noah’s creations.
I do not wish to be an artist, I only wish that art enables me to be.
– Noah Purifoy, 1963
Born in Snow Hill, Alabama in 1917, Noah Purifoy lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California, where he died in 2004. He received an undergraduate degree from Alabama State Teachers College in 1943 and a graduate degree from Atlanta University in 1948. In 1956, just shy of his 40th birthday, Purifoy earned a BFA degree from Chouinard, now CalArts.
His earliest body of sculpture, constructed out of charred debris from the 1965 Watts rebellion, was the basis for 66 Signs of Neon, the landmark 1966 group exhibition on the Watts riots that traveled throughout the country. As a founding director of the Watts Towers Art Center, Purifoy knew the community intimately. His 66 Signs of Neon, in line with the postwar period’s fascination with the street and its objects, constituted a Duchampian approach to the fire-molded alleys of Watts. This strategy profoundly impacted artists such as David Hammons, John Outterbridge and Senga Nengudi. For the 20 years that followed the rebellion, Purifoy dedicated himself to the found object, and to using art as a tool for social change.
In the late 1980s, after 11 years of public policy work for the California Arts Council, where Purifoy initiated programs such as Artists in Social Institutions, which brought art into the state prison system, Purifoy moved his practice out to the Mojave desert. He lived for the last 15 years of his life creating ten acres full of large-scale sculpture on the desert floor. Constructed entirely from junked materials, this otherworldly environment is one of California’s great art historical wonders.