Noah Purifoy

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No Contest (Bicycles)
1991
Noah Purifoy
assembled sculpture
168″ x 252″ x 24″
Photo: courtesy Noah Purifoy Foundation

In 1966, nearly a year after the tumultuous Watts rebellion of August 1965, artist Noah Purifoy organized the landmark exhibition, “66 Signs of Neon,” assembled from the debris and damaged remains of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. Triggered by the arrest of a black motorist, and the escalating tensions between law enforcement and the community of Watts finally reaching a breaking point, the uprising led artists to consider the transformative power of art, which was realized in the reworking, quite literally, of the physical ruins of South Los Angeles. As artists crafted works out of the charred remnants of their world, a form of assemblage art was born. Mixed-media assemblage, or the use of actual objects to construct works of art from component parts, became key in articulating the desire to develop new and more complex means to understand and comment upon society. The resulting movement was by no means monolithic; rather, artists developed a multitude of ideas about the artistic potential of assemblage. According to art historian Kellie Jones, “With assemblage, these artists could refer to the complexities of African American culture and life without having to rely on simplistic painted representations of the black figure.” While assemblage of found materials and objects as an art practice was already occurring in the early ’60s in California, in the works of artists such as George Herms and Edward Kienholz, the work in “66 Signs of Neon” took it one step further, with materials carrying the symbolic weight of the violent events which caused their creation, including Purifoy’s own Watts Uprising Remains (c. 1965-66).

For Purifoy, discarded objects were democratic: they didn’t discriminate against those who could not afford or access “fine” art materials. For fellow artist John Riddle, assemblage was a clear metaphor for the process of change required of art to “advance social consciousness and promote black development.” As John Outterbridge noted, “What is available to you is not mere material but the material and the essence of the political climate, the material in the debris of social issues. At times even the trauma within the community becomes the debris that artists manipulate and that manipulates the sensibility of artists.” Assemblage thus became an important artistic strategy, that not only radically changed notions of art and art making, but also offered a medium through which the artist was able to redefine the relationship between viewer and object, and between artist and social context. The artist’s choice and manipulation of reality itself became the subject of new work. It was as if artists were calling into question their own relationship to the times and the all-encompassing history of the moment in which their work would be seen.

A year prior to the opening “66 Signs of Neon,” Purifoy cofounded the Watts Towers Arts Center, a center for arts education in the Watts community, focusing in particular on the design and implementation of art programs for children as well as programs for high school dropouts. He believed in the power of art education as a tool of liberation for young people struggling to find their way through life. Purifoy’s own life and career took a meandering path before the establishment of the Watts Towers Arts Center. Born in Snow Hill, Alabama in 1917, Purifoy graduated from high school in 1935, later earned a bachelor’s degree in history, served in the US Navy during WWII, and returned to school for a master’s degree in social services upon his return, working both industrial and social service jobs in between, all before completing a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Chouinard Art Institute at the age of 39. His experiences and approach to life contributed to the success of his programming at the Watts Towers Arts Center, where he was able to successfully inspire many of his students to return to high school and even attend college.

For Purifoy and his collaborators at the Watts Towers Arts Center, the uprising in Watts in 1965 served as motivation to expand their programs for teens. For example, Purifoy and Sue Welsh successfully established a federally funded program called Teen Post, geared towards attracting street youth to the center. One of the programs was a theatre workshop for high school dropouts, in which teens and young adults who were involved in the rebellion were able to transform their personal experiences with police brutality and poverty into narratives for the stage. The Watts Towers Theatre Workshop was able to travel to various all-white communities in the Los Angeles area and showcase their stories in environments where Watts was thought of as a place to be feared, and the program received national attention for its success.

One of Noah Purifoy’s main concerns as an artist and as an educator was the use of creativity and art as a tool for social change that can also improve the quality of one’s life. His work with the Watts Towers Art Center and then later his appointment to the California Arts Council (CAC) contributed to making art accessible to disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles and improving the quality of life experienced by the young people living in those communities who were in need of support. Following his resignation from the CAC in 1987, Purifoy relocated to Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert, embarking on the massive project of creating a large-scale outdoor museum in the desert, entirely constructed from assembled sculptures and installations. He lived and worked in Joshua Tree surrounded by ten acres of desert and junk-art installations until his death in 2004, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy of impact on the communities he so intimately worked with and the art world at large-an impact which is only recently being recognized at the scale it deserves.

—NAIMA J KEITH
“Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” runs at LACMA from June 7 – September 27, 2015 www.LACMA.org

Untitled (Aku’aba)
2000
Noah Purifoy
assemblage sculpture
160″ x 104″ x 10″
Photo: courtesy Noah Purifoy Foundation