When artist Noah Purifoy — legendary for his assemblage sculpture — moved to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles in 1989, the yucca-, cholla- and sagebrush-dotted landscape became his gallery space.
It became the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, to be exact. Today the museum is a must-visit for anyone who happens to be in this neck of the high desert named after the tree that seems to be perpetually in motion. (Check out our Joshua Tree recap here.) The 10-acre “art site” of the late Noah Purifoy displays mindbending sculpture and structures built with found objects ranging from bicycles, toilets and baking sheets to TVs, clothes and car parts. The shapes, constructions and context of these works give them incredible emotional impact.
The sky, plants and climate also energize the experience.
In June, LACMA opened its “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” show, which includes several seismic structures from the outdoor museum, as well as works from earlier in the career of Purifoy, who was born in Snow Hill, Alabama, in 1917. After moving to Los Angeles as an adult, Purifoy became one of the visionaries in the postwar Assemblage movement; his sculpture using debris from the 1965 Watts Rebellion was central to the groundbreaking 66 Signs of Neon (1966) show. Purifoy’s work has also shown at the Whitney and the Corcoran, and he was a founding director of the Watts Towers Art Center. Purifoy died in 2004 in Joshua Tree at age 86.
“Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” was organized by LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans and independent curator Yael Lipschutz, an art historian working to spotlight under-recognized Southern California artists. The show runs through September 27. If you’re in L.A. between now and then, get to LACMA to see it. If you’re near Joshua Tree at any point in your life, make your way to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, which is open every day of the week and accepts donations at entry.
Be sure to bring sunblock, a hat and water for your self-guided tour. And prepare to be moved.
“Purifoy appreciated the desert fauna and did not alter or remove the desert plants,” says Sue A. Welsh, trustee of the Noah Purifoy Foundation, via email. “He often discovered desert mammals creating nests in his sculptures. He placed his sculptures, constructions and installations around and near shrubs such as sagebrush, creosote bush, cacti and cholla. He loved the terrain and the feel of the high desert and respected its character and bustling life around him.”
And how did the setting influence Purifoy’s work? Was he concerned about the effect of the elements on his pieces? “Noah learned to appreciate the desert,” says Welsh. “He said it permitted him to build with the breadth, the width and the depth of a piece. He used perishable materials because he could see change in the work by allowing nature, the sun, wind and rain, to participate in the creative process.”
Below, explore photos from our visit to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, where human works mingle so powerfully with the earth-grown, taken earlier this year…