Noah Purifoy, the renowned assemblage artist and Watts Towers Arts Center co-founder, died Friday in a fire at his home in Joshua Tree. He was 86.
Purifoy was found on the floor next to his wheelchair Friday morning by his caretaker, who called San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies and firefighters to the home.
A coroner's office spokesman said that the artist may have fallen asleep while smoking. An autopsy will be conducted later this week to determine the cause of death.
Purifoy was best known for "66 Signs of Neon," a traveling exhibition of sculptures made from 3 tons of rubble from the 1965 Watts riots. His works have been part of the collections of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum in New York and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
Purifoy's work was large and sprawling -- unwieldy but artful combinations of bicycle wheels, bowling balls, train tracks, old refrigerators -- making it nearly impossible to sell or collect.
Most of it was assembled on 7 1/2 acres in the high desert, owned since 1998 by the Noah Purifoy Foundation, a group dedicated to maintaining his open-air studio, gallery and museum.
"The idea of taking found objects and putting them in the harsh conditions of the desert added a strange dimension to his work," said artist Ed Ruscha, who donated much of the land. "It marked a big decision on his part to take that on -- the sun and wind and weather change."
Purifoy, the 10th of 13 children, was born in rural Alabama, where his parents were farmers, and moved to Birmingham at age 3.
"As a child, I wasn't conscious of racism," he told The Times in 1995, "but I was aware something was going on. Once, when I was 5, my mother was taking me to the store, and there was a parade in the street. People had hoods on, and when I asked my mother what was happening, she said, 'That's the Ku Klux Klan.' "
The family moved to Cleveland when Purifoy was 12. He later studied at Alabama State Teachers College, taught shop in Montgomery, fought in the South Pacific during World War II and earned a master's degree in social work at Atlanta University.
In 1952, after several years doing social work in Cleveland, Purifoy moved to Los Angeles, a city he had first glimpsed while in the Army. On a whim, he enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, a Disney-funded art school in Lafayette Park. In 1964, he co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Center, an outreach program.
Purifoy's embrace of assemblage came the following year, during the Watts riots, when he and colleagues collected and later assembled debris for "66 Signs of Neon." His burst of interest in creating assemblage -- sparked in part by the artist's fascination with Dada -- faded as the '70s began.
Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the then-new California Arts Commission in 1976, Purifoy abandoned much of his own work and toiled for a decade in Sacramento in arts and education programs.
He moved to Joshua Tree in 1989, at the urging of friends.
"I wanted to do an earth piece," he recently told the Desert News of Palm Springs, "and you can't get that much land in Los Angeles to do an earth piece." His interest in creating work blossomed again, and he entered an extremely productive period.
Despite his roots in the African American arts movement, Purifoy identified himself less as an African American artist and more as an assemblage artist, working to earn respect for that sometimes-overlooked genre. In the Desert News interview, he went on at length about the roots of assemblage in Picasso's collage, and complained about "a unique art form not even recognized in universities."
By contrast, he brushed past a reference to his identity as an African American. "He didn't like being called a black artist," said friend and arts advocate Bob Silva. "It diminished the art."
Nor was his work -- with the exception of some pieces like a "colored" drinking fountain and a recent unfinished piece called "Gallows," with its hints of lynching -- overtly political. Sue Welsh, secretary of the Noah Purifoy Foundation and a Purifoy friend of 40 years, said his recent work was increasingly whimsical.
Still, artist John Outterbridge, who ran the Watts center with Purifoy and remembered Purifoy's hunger for late-night conversation, emphasized that his art came out of the black experience.
"Because we weren't wealthy people, everything around us became part of our palette," Outterbridge said. "He grew up in a part of the South where a pair of pants was never too old to wear."
Described by some as soft-spoken and philosophical, Purifoy was also well-connected in the high desert arts community. "Noah drew people to him," said Welsh, who added that the foundation would continue to maintain the site and work.
"Every artist I ever introduced him to came away with the impression that they had just met a longtime friend," Silva said. "After talking to him for five minutes, you felt you knew him -- or he'd known you -- all your life."
In the last few years, Purifoy had become a kind of godfather to younger conceptual artists who had begun settling near his Joshua Tree-area compound. The artist Andrea Zittel, for instance, told The Times in 2002 that she moved to the area because of Purifoy's example; she later included some of his work in twice-yearly desert art shows called High Desert Test Sites.
Ruscha, too, said he had been inspired by Purifoy's longevity and continued enthusiasm for his work.
"He was working up until the very last," said Ruscha, who said the last year had been difficult for Purifoy because of a broken hip and other medical problems. "Any artist who's lived that long and still wants to keep working -- support that person."
Purifoy is survived by four sisters, Ophelia Jeffries, Mary Lewis, Lucille McDaniel and Esther Purifoy, all of the Cleveland area.
No service is planned, though memorials are being planned in Joshua Tree and Los Angeles. Information is available from Sue Welsh of the Noah Purifoy Foundation at (213) 382-7516 or www.noahpurifoy.com.
Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.