Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Desert Meets Dada: Exploring the Outdoor Art of Noah Purifoy (in Joshua Tree and Beyond)

Photos by Ryan Benoit

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.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

The Blair Lane entrance to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture.

Noah Purifoy

Noah Purifoy in his Joshua Tree studio. Photo courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Carousel’ by Noah Purifoy.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Carousel.’

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.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Tours are self-guided and brochures are available at the entrance along with a box for donations.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata).

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘White/Colored.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Aurora Borealis.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Newspapers serve as a barricade along a wall of ‘Aurora Borealis.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Metal shavings resemble a plume of smoke along the border of ‘Oil Derrick.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

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…

—TH

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

A silver cholla (Cylindropuntia echinocarpa) communes with ‘Ode to Frank Gehry,’ one of the works included in ‘Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada’ at LACMA. The show runs through September 27.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Diamond Cholla (Opuntia ramosissima).

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Yucca schidigera, also known as the Mojave yucca or Spanish dagger.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy’s ’65 Aluminum Trays’ (2002) is one of the works currently on display at LACMA.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

A Yucca brevifolia is the centerpiece of ‘Noah’s Cactus Garden.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Agave borders ‘Noah’s Workshop.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

California barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus).

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Bowling Balls I.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

“From the Point of View of the Little People” (1994), another work currently at LACMA.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Theatre.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

“Theatre.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Gallery.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Gallows.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Untitled (Monument).

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Bessemmer Steel.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Interior of ‘Shelter.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘The White House.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘The White House.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree

‘Shipwrecked.’

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree