This year’s edition of the expansive and occasionally controversial land art exhibition, Desert X, concluded its 10-week run on April 21, galvanizing attention with 18 site-specific artworks created in response to the desert’s social, political, and environmental conditions. And those conditions called back — most notably the environment.
The site-specific installation launched without Jenny Holzer’s light projections planned for the Whitewater Preserve. Wind took a toll on Kathleen Ryan’s Ghost Palm in Desert Hot Springs. Nancy Baker Cahill’s virtual explosions of color, Revolutions, had to move to a new location after heavy winter storms. Sterling Ruby’s Specter was briefly defaced with a spray-painted heart, and Halter, Eric Mack’s glorious statement created from more than 2,000 feet of Missoni fabric, disappeared entirely.
None of this would have surprised Noah Purifoy, one of the pioneers of outdoor desert art, which he built almost entirely from castoff objects. “Noah felt that the environment was his collaborator,” says Joe Lewis, president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation. “The idea of the clinical preciousness of the work really takes a back seat. The work is precious, yes, in one sense — but not so precious that a scratch or dent makes it any less than what it was when it first went out.”
Purifoy died in 2004, leaving behind more than 100 sculptures and installations on 10 acres of land north of Joshua Tree. The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art — or the Outdoor Museum, as it’s usually called — is open every day of the year, free of charge, sunrise to sunset. It was designated a “Parallel Project” of Desert X, one of a handful of permanent local art sites to be recognized.
His materials were scrapped headboards and vacuum cleaners, old guitars and bowling balls, mangled bicycles and TV antennas. The scale and range is unnerving and profound. Any line between art and non-art becomes permeable, particularly when wind topples a structure or shreds fabric to bits. But as Purifoy said in a 1997 interview with artist C. Ian White, “Maintenance is not my business. I don’t do maintenance. I do artwork. If it wants to deteriorate, I find some kind of gratification in watching nature participate in the creative process.”
Near the center of the Outdoor Museum is Purifoy’s imposing Shelter. Created between 1992 and 1995, it could be a child’s fort or a homeless encampment, triggering comfort and despair in equal measure. Visitors enter along a path descending slightly below the desert floor. The cool space offers protection from the elements, until the squalor inside turns claustrophobic. It’s a refuge of last resort.
Moving through the museum can feel like an artist’s sketchbook in three dimensions. Moods shift from poignant to playful to socially charged. A common thread is Purifoy’s experience of growing up poor in the segregated South, which fueled his drive to find a new artistic language expressing black identity.
Noah Purifoy died in 2004, leaving behind more than 100 sculptures and installations on 10 acres of land north of Joshua Tree.
Born into a sharecropper family in 1917, Purifoy came west in 1950, pursuing social work before turning to art. He was the first African American student to be enrolled full time at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts), the co-founder and first director of the Watts Towers Art Center, and a founding member of the California Arts Council, where he developed programs to bring art into schools and the state prison system.
One of his defining efforts, 66 Signs of Neon, was a collaborative exhibition constructed from the rubble of the 1965 Watts rebellion in Los Angeles. It traveled nationally and internationally for three years, asking audiences to reflect on the conditions that led to its birth. For the most part, however, his standing in the canon of assemblage art went largely overlooked until 2015, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted the first retrospective exhibition, “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.” Co-curated by Franklin Sirmans of LACMA and independent curator Yael Lipschutz — who sits on the Outdoor Museum board and is a board member of Desert X — “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” was named one of 2015’s “Best in Art” by the New York Times.
“He (Noah) is an influence that will continue to gain ground as more artists become familiar with him,” says Curator Michael McCall of the Yucca Valley Art Center.
“Junk Dada” navigated a fine line: If art is meant to be seen in the open air, accented by wind in tamarisk trees, the hum of electrical lines, and the deep-throated bark of a too-close guard dog — sounds that heighten the isolation Purifoy felt as a black man in America — what’s gained or lost in the refined setting of a museum? Conversely, if art is radically altered by the climate, leading to the replacement of key elements, is it still the same piece?
Existential questions of permanence and boundaries are at the fore in Purifoy’s work, both in the time of its creation and the years after. Lewis chuckles when asked about preservation. High-profile foundations support the land art of Donald Judd, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson, backed by million-dollar budgets. The Purifoy Foundation is all-volunteer. Lewis says 90 percent of the funding comes from the board.
“We’re doing our best to preserve the site and the work. Fortunately, we’re not bound by the peculiarities of ‘museum conservation’ preservation. If we need to repaint something, we’ll repaint it. That’s in the spirit of Noah,” he says. “Obviously some of the work is just going to evaporate at some point, no matter what we do. We’re trying to maintain as many pieces as possible with the expertise we have on our board.”
“A lot of the work is going to be around for quite awhile because it is made of fairly impervious materials,” he adds. “But some of it is not.”
A large installation, Earth Piece, collapsed a few years ago. The foundation determined it was unsafe to enter and closed off the area. In the catalog for “Junk Dada,” Lipschutz writes: “Purifoy often said that Earth Piece was his inspiration for coming to the desert. … It took him ten years to save enough money to rent the expensive equipment required to build it.”
Sculptor Cathy Allen, who teaches fine art at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, calls the issue of preserving Purifoy’s work “a constant dilemma.” She studied under him for years and the two became fast friends. She credits him with transforming the fundamental philosophy of her artistic practice.
“Noah would be laughing at all this,” she says, referring to the foundation’s attempts to stay true to an aesthetic of obsolete toilets and thrift-shop clothing. “When he was putting that work out early on, he didn’t really think about that.”
“Ode to Frank Gehry” (2000).
When she gives tours of the museum, she points out the “boneyard” where Purifoy kept his raw materials and asks visitors to examine what makes it different from a finished sculpture.
“A lot of people come here and say ‘This is just a bunch of junk,’” Allen says. “It is a bunch of junk but it takes the artist’s hand to organize it in some fashion to say something, to make it art. Using found materials, you’re blurring the line between objects of daily use, the utilitarian, and the art object.”
Curator Michael McCall chose Purifoy’s legacy as the subject of his first exhibition when the Yucca Valley Art Center opened last year. In “Ground to Sky,” McCall led with works from Purifoy, setting the context for desert artists including Allen, Eric Banas, and Bobby Furst.
“All three make very tough assemblage work, a direct influence of Noah Purifoy,” McCall wrote in an email. “Assemblage artwork has lots of historical references, but the tough stuff, the truly tough work that reflect the desert’s power, the extremes that produce discarded, often rusty, dirty, and broken-down everyday objects, seems to be in direct relation to Noah Purifoy’s prowess.”
“He is an influence that will continue to gain ground as more artists become familiar with him,” McCall added.
The Outdoor Museum is approaching 30, a significant milestone. Lewis says there are no activities planned, though board members are thinking about it. They’d like to expand the educational center, possibly add a residency and archive, but Lewis estimates that would cost around $400,000. International art publisher Gerhard Steidl is expected to release a book of black-and-white photographs toward the end of the year. Shot by Hannah Collins, they document Purifoy’s work in the manner of photojournalist Walker Evans.
“A lot of people come here and say, ‘This is just a bunch of junk.’ It is a bunch of junk but it takes the artist’s hand to organize it in some fashion to say something, to make it art.”
In the meantime, foundation board members and a part-time caretaker keep an eye on the place, tightening guy-wires and reinforcing walls. This art, rooted in sand and stubbornly temporary, echoes the people and memories that we value or let go.
“What makes art so special? Why should it be put in a museum, away from use?” Allen says. “He asks the question all over the place. The whole thing is about ‘what is art supposed to be?’ Why does art have to be permanent?”
“You see a stack of chairs that were once functional, the function has been changed, but now we’re designating it as a piece of art, well, what is the function of art?” she continues. “And if art is to be preserved and this is deteriorating, then what’s going on?”
Noah Purifoy Museum, 62975 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree, noahpurifoy.com.