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An Overlooked Journey

TIMES ART CRITIC

Three distinct phases mark Noah Purifoy’s career as an artist:

* From 1965 to 1976 he was instrumental in redefining black consciousness in art, especially through a distinct approach to the technique of assemblage sculpture.

* For the next 11 years he made no art at all, becoming instead a critical figure in the development of a state-level arts bureaucracy as a Gov. Jerry Brown-appointed founding member of the California Arts Council.

* Since 1987 he has been dedicated to working independently, principally on a series of large-scale outdoor assemblage sculptures.

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Artistically speaking, however, Purifoy, who turns 80 this year, has long seemed to be more legend than known quantity. He’s celebrated as the founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, located at the magical site in South-Central where Sabato Rodia built his famously soaring spires of concrete, glass and broken pottery. But his sculpture is most commonly regarded in a generalized way, grouped with that of such other African American assemblagists who emerged in Los Angeles as Betye Saar, Houston Conwill, John Outterbridge and the internationally acclaimed David Hammons.

Hammons’ work is unthinkable without Purifoy’s precedent--yet, that is a judgment that only now is beginning to come into focus. The reason: “Noah Purifoy: Outside and In the Open,” a retrospective exhibition of 45 assemblages newly opened at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, which for the first time lays out the artist’s career in its entirety. (A catalog is forthcoming in the spring.)

His is not an easy path to follow, but the retrospective is an excellent beginning. In fact, it has something of the feel of a rediscovery.

Not much of Purifoy’s pre-1976 work survives; neither the L.A. County Museum of Art nor the Museum of Contemporary Art owns any examples. Given his lengthy hiatus from making art, a period followed by his 1989 move to the remote desert community of Joshua Tree, it has in effect been 20 years since Purifoy’s sculpture has been a major presence on the scene.

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The show opens with a riveting work, which ranks as a pivotal example of 1960s assemblage art and is the touchstone for Purifoy’s career. “Watts Riot” (1965) is a painted and plastered vertical panel, three feet wide and about four feet high, to which bits of charred lumber have been affixed.

The slathered colors are muddy, mixed from a glowing rainbow of hues--an improvisation that seems composed from paint remnants scavenged from leftover cans. The scraped plaster is thick, ridged and scarred, the burnt wood applied as a visual scaffolding.

The panel has the appearance of a fragment of ruined wall--though you can’t quite tell whether you’re looking at its front, back or innards. In the smoky blackness near the top, torn letters in low relief spell out the word “signs,” while a sooty disk at the lower left bears the circular legend “Always be careful.”

This stark assemblage is part remnant of a dwelling, part tattered signboard, patched together from debris gathered in the wake of the 1965 Watts rebellion. Like a talisman, it exerts a powerful, even mesmerizing pull.

Visually exquisite, the nonetheless battered object appears to have been through fire. Thanks to an artist’s knowing intervention, however, it has endured the grueling trial as if annealed, emerging as a beautiful icon.

In the 1950s, assemblage had been California’s first home-grown Modern art. Purifoy’s approach to the genre, which joins together fragmentary remains of everyday life, is distinct from the harsh, moralistically minded work of Edward Kienholz, and from the more poetic sculptures of Wallace Berman and George Herms, with their melancholic aura of cosmic ephemera.

Instead, “Watts Riot” recalls the persevering spirit manifested by the old slave song from which James Baldwin had taken the title of “The Fire Next Time,” his searingly brilliant 1963 meditation on American race relations: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time!”

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The assemblage is one critical marker of a decisive shift in African American art. A tradition of painted or sculpted depictions of black humanity, which had been prominent since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, began to give way in the 1960s to a spiritual or metaphysical conception of blackness. Assemblage, especially among a group of black artists working in L.A., became the vehicle in which complex relationships were given new form through the particularities of life experience.

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Purifoy’s unique approach to assemblage took mature shape in “Watts Riot.” No doubt his age had something to do with it. He was 48.

A former high school teacher, social worker and World War II vet, Purifoy didn’t go to art school (the former Chouinard Art Institute) until 1952, when he was in his mid-30s and already had a master’s degree. More than a decade passed before he figured out the direction his art would take.

Sometimes Purifoy employs illustrative description in his work: a shanty facade in “Watts” (1988), the buckskin and fur portraiture of “Zulu No. 4" (undated) and the outstretched, piano playing hands of the 1989 homage to Duke Ellington, “Black, Brown and Beige.” For me, such illustrations intrude on the possibility of lively dialogue between sculpture and viewer, depriving the work of an improvisational open-endedness that seems essential.

“Icon” (1993), one of the few frankly figurative pieces in the show, is an exception. Painted flat black, a boxy torso is fitted with the arms and legs of a mannequin. A toilet seat affixed to the chest does wry double-duty, suggesting a warrior’s shield. The statue’s head is made from an anvil--the hard block on which useful objects get hammered into shape--while the anvil’s distinctly hawklike profile recalls the ancient Egyptian sun god, Horus.

In general, more compelling are works like “Rags and Old Iron (After Nina Simone)” (1989), a wall-relief swaddled in innumerable strips of cloth--patterned, woven, unraveled, crocheted, embroidered--with a spine of charred wood that runs the length of the piece. Suggestions of loss and renewal, humility and grandeur are bound together in a refined flourish.

The retrospective is unfortunately sketchy on the first phase of Purifoy’s career, with only three sculptures securely dated from 1965 to 1976. The 11-year hiatus that followed means that the retrospective, ably organized by curator Lizetta LeFalle-Collins, is more like a survey of work from the past decade.

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Even among the dozen monumental outdoor assemblages, however, a continuity of purpose is self-evident. At the entrance to the first gallery stands a big, lead-covered slab, taller than a standing man, that loosely recalls “Watts Riot,” hanging a few feet away.

Affixed around the sculpture’s base are a deep-sea diving belt, a lead-covered wine bottle, a decorated bucket with some screws inside, a small bugle and a cross made from old-fashioned printer’s type. Splashed across its face are dazzlingly colored sheets of melted solder, the alloy used to join metal surfaces, in which bits of other metal objects are embedded.

Made last year, “Untitled (Heavy Metal)” is like an ancient funerary marker whose parts have been subjected to the searing heat of a blowtorch. The distance traversed between the stele and “Watts Riot” is vast--and also infinitesimal.

* California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, (213) 744-7432, through June 16. Closed Mondays.


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