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To Protect and Preserve a Desert Legacy

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Big plans are in the works at Noah Purifoy’s sculpture park in the high desert. That may not sound like news, because the 83-year-old artist is always up to something unusual in this place where towers of bowling balls and toilet seats mingle with lead-wrapped tree trunks, glittering ship-like structures, masses of dead household appliances and walk-though environments packed with castoff clothing, car parts, computer keyboards, guitars and folded newspapers.

Purifoy emerged in the 1960s as an influential assemblage artist and founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, but he put his own work on hold from 1976 to 1987 while serving on the California Arts Council, at the request of the governor. Since 1989, he has lived and worked on this remote acreage near the town of Joshua Tree, where he has transformed leftovers of a consumer society into an improbable artistic environment.

But even as Purifoy continues to populate his plot of parched earth with more and more sculptures, a small band of friends and supporters is trying to ensure that his legacy will be preserved. The group has established the Noah Purifoy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining his sculptural environment as a public cultural center and to promoting greater appreciation for the values expressed in the artist’s life and work.

“I do assemblage; I don’t do maintenance,” says Purifoy, voicing the philosophy of an artist who knows his job is to make art. “What nature does is part of the creative process,” he says, so he accepts a certain amount of weathering and rebuilds pieces toppled by strong winds. But he needs to concentrate on creating new work and is delighted that the foundation will help with the conservation he doesn’t have time for. “I can’t express enough appreciation for the people who are helping me,” he says.

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At the top of his list is Sue Welsh, who met Purifoy in the 1960s, when she was teaching at Markham Junior High in Watts and he was a community art activist. Welsh now works as a marketing director of a Los Angeles printing company and as Purifoy’s dealer, but she also spearheads the initiative that has produced the nonprofit foundation.

One of her first moves was to assemble an impressive board of trustees, including Edward Ruscha, an internationally renowned artist who lives in Los Angeles; Paul Karlstrom, regional director of the Archives of American Art, based at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino; Joe Lewis, chairman of the art department at Cal State Northridge; and Richard Candida Smith, director of the University of Michigan’s Program of American Culture.

“I suppose everyone came to it for different reasons,” Karlstrom says of the foundation, “but it seemed to us that this was a special artistic spirit and presence, which needed a structure to make sure that it all stayed together. And I don’t mean just the work; I mean Noah’s whole artistic endeavor.” The Archives of American Art is caring for Purifoy’s papers, while the foundation is trying to make “a safe place for his creative spirit,” Karlstrom says.

Ruscha says he became interested in Purifoy’s work many years ago, bought one of his collages at the Corridor Gallery in Hollywood in 1996 and was blown away by his 1997 retrospective exhibition at the California African-American Museum in Exposition Park. “Noah is sort of out of the line of sight as far as exhibiting in the usual galleries, but that show alerted me to him,” Ruscha says. “That’s when I began to realize that he is conspicuously talented.”

Ruscha finally met Purifoy about a year and half ago, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Karlstrom. “I was impressed because I could see that he was making art that would have its own unique future,” he says. “It’s not going to be packed away in warehouses; it’s going to be as he shows it.”

Ruscha found the desert work “particularly powerful,” but also saw that “because of the difficulty of preserving these works, and Noah’s age and the heroic kinds of things he was doing, he needed assistance. It’s good that Noah has the luxury of creating a work of art on a particular spot and then just leaving it in place for the ages, but it’s a shame that he has to do all of this stuff for himself,” he says.

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Once the trustees got together, they “hammered out a mission statement and bylaws,” Karlstrom says. They also secured the Joshua Tree property. The estate of artist Debbie Brewer, Purifoy’s longtime friend and landlady, donated the plot of 2 1/2 acres where he has lived and worked since 1989. Ruscha purchased an adjacent 5-acre parcel and gave it to the foundation. About $10,000 of a hoped-for $75,000 has been raised to fulfill immediate goals of conserving and protecting Purifoy’s desert work, and providing curatorial assistance for visitors.

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But much remains to be done, Welsh says. Some sort of reception center is needed, and she hopes to launch a series of programs to explore issues related to Purifoy’s work. Another possibility is to invite artists to collaborate with Purifoy or create their own work in the desert.

Purifoy, who was born in Snow Hill, Ala., in 1917 and raised in Cleveland, was a high school shop teacher and social worker before becoming an artist. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery in 1943 and a master of social service administration degree from Atlanta University in 1948. He moved to Los Angeles in 1952, enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree there in 1956.

Credited with redefining black artistic consciousness through assemblage sculpture, Purifoy organized the traveling exhibition “66 Signs of Neon” with artist Judson Powell. Composed of sculptures made from debris of the 1965 Watts riots, the show appeared at nine California State University campuses from 1966 to 1969 and created considerable controversy along the way. Some of the artists were offended that their work was displayed in student unions instead of campus art galleries, while some visitors who responded to the show in a comment book dismissed the art as junk.

Purifoy says he moved to the desert because he couldn’t afford to live and work in Los Angeles. Accepting Brewer’s offer to join her in the desert, he expected to find a ready supply of free materials but discovered that his neighbors were inveterate recyclers. He began to receive some donations of materials after a sympathetic article appeared in a local newspaper, but he still buys many of his supplies--generally by the pound.

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The stuff piles up until he has enough to work with. Then it becomes part of works such as “Igloo,” a white-paneled house, or “Bandwagon,” a trailer of folding chairs. “Kirby Express” is a train of metal barrels and old Kirby vacuum cleaner parts. “No Contest” consists of two bicycles, one of them upside-down, on the roof of a wooden shed.

Purifoy says many of his pieces are tributes to American ingenuity, pointing out the talents of inventors and designers responsible for components of his work. But he’s not inclined to praise his own achievement or even to judge it. “I don’t separate the good from the bad,” he says. “It just is.”

While he obviously puts an enormous amount of effort into his sculpture, he claims no clear plan of action. “It doesn’t come from a thought process; it’s intuitive, more or less,” he says of his work. “Art is a byproduct of the creative process.”

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For information about the Noah Purifoy Foundation or to visit Purifoy’s sculptural environment in Joshua Tree, contact Sue Welsh at (213) 382-7516 or visit the Web site: https://www.noahpurifoy.com.


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