They hit the streets almost as soon as the fires had died down. Noah Purifoy and his pal, musician Judson Powell, tugging a wagon that they filled with whatever interesting scraps they could find: Twisted pieces of charred steel. Singed bits of family photographs. The contorted letters that had once belonged to a marquee. And a Bible, which the heat of the flames had melted into a pile of blackened detritus beneath it, its pages forever opened to the Epistles.
“We had no idea exactly what we were looking for and we didn’t know what we would do with it,” Powell recalls. “Things had calmed down, and so we took our wagon into the streets and looked for things that looked beautiful: the signs of neon, the signs that had melted and broken and pieces that were infused with glass. They looked like beautiful jewels in the sunshine.”
For a week in August 1965, Watts burned — an outpouring of grief and rage from L.A.'s historic African American heart in protest of decades of economic marginalization and mistreatment at the hands of the police. Cafes, shoe stores, liquor shops and food markets all went up in flames. Entire blocks were devastated: 103rd Street between Success Avenue and Grape Street was dubbed “Charcoal Alley” because nearly every building on that strip had been reduced to rubble.
And out of this rubble, Purifoy and his collaborators — Powell, along with artists Max Neufeldt, Arthur Secunda, Ruth Saturensky and Debby Brewer — made art: sculptures crafted out of burned wood, rusty fumigation cans, old piano pedals and piles of blackened nails, sculptures that played as much with art history as they did with the charged nature of the materials, which still reeked of smoke. In spring 1966, Purifoy put 66 of these works on display at Markham Junior High School in Watts as part of a local arts festival. The show later traveled to the student union at UCLA and then spent two years touring eight other universities across the country before landing at a modern art gallery in Washington, D.C.
“It was the greatest thing I’d seen in my life,” recalls Dale Davis, an artist and former proprietor of the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park who was 19 when he saw the exhibition. “It was sophisticated, but it had that raw edge. This is a period of upheaval. It’s the Vietnam War period. It’s Watts. It was all very unsettling. And the show captured the period. ... By the time I got to it, I was like, this is it.”
Purifoy, who died in 2004 at age 86, told an oral historian for UCLA that the show helped him find his voice as an artist. Before “66 Signs,” he explained, “I had a beret and all. I ate cheese and drank wine. But I wasn’t an artist yet until Watts. That made me an artist.”
It was a show that would reverberate throughout his career. Even in the late ‘80s, when Purifoy moved from L.A. to Joshua Tree to focus on creating sculpture, covering 10 acres of desert in oversized assemblages crafted from washing machines and car grills, Watts was something that stayed with him.
“He talked a lot about Watts,” says independent curator Yael Lipschutz, who met Purifoy during his time in the desert and who helped organize the current survey of his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Junk Dada.” "That was something he talked about with many visitors. It was such a formative event and experience.”
“66 Signs” also resonated with a generation of artists — key figures such as David Hammons, Senga Nengudi and John Outterbridge — who were inspired by Purifoy’s considered approach to his materials.
“Everything had a position and a place,” Powell says. “The creator doesn’t make junk. Everything is for a purpose. And when you can sit down and understand that purpose, everything can look purposeful to you.”
“People go right to his work because they see something familiar in it,” says Rosie Lee Hooks, the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, the community arts organization that Purifoy helped establish back in the 1960s. Two of the artist’s assemblages from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are hanging at the center as part of the exhibition “50 Years and I Still Can’t Breathe: Remembering the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and Now.” The pieces bear bits of burlap, rope, shell and viscous layers of black paint.
“It looks like junk,” Hooks says. “It’s stuff that has been thrown away. But he has made it into something beautiful. It teaches us about how we regard people, disadvantaged people who don’t have a lot, who are cast aside because of their race and because they are poor.”
Purifoy was born in 1917 in Snow Hill, Ala,., one of 13 children born to a pair of sharecroppers. One of his earliest memories was helping his family out in the fields. “I trailed behind the family as they picked cotton,” he said in his UCLA oral history. “I got in the way for the most part and was often sent home on a blind mule and had to wait at the door until somebody came to get me off.”
After high school, Purifoy attended Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University), and for a time he taught shop in Montgomery. It was a circuitous series of events that brought Purifoy to Los Angeles and, ultimately, to the life of an artist. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. After the war, he completed a master’s degree in social services administration at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) and went on to work as a social worker in Cleveland and later in Los Angeles, where he landed in 1950, taking a job at the County Hospital.
But he was never satisfied with the work. One day, as he drove past the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), he was struck with the idea of becoming an artist. “I passed that one day and said, ‘I think I want to go to art school,’” he said. “And I was accepted without portfolio or anything.”
That decision would catapult Purifoy into another series of jobs — commercial artist, interior designer, furniture designer and window display artist. But the most important of these gigs would come in 1964 when he became the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center.
There, in a bungalow adjacent to Simon Rodia’s famous towers on 107th Street, he established after-school programs, art lessons and theater workshops for the surrounding community. And often he would use whatever was at hand to teach. “We’d take the children on trips to pick out objects,” he told UCLA, “and bring it back to the Towers, to the art center, to do assemblages and collages and so forth.”
Purifoy was at the Towers in August 1965 when the fires broke out four blocks away.
At that point, he had already begun to make art: drawings and collages and constructions crafted from Plexiglas. In it, he had found his path.
“I had these things inside of me ready to be expressed, but I didn’t have a media through which to express them,” he told UCLA. “I tried social work, that didn’t work. I’d try this and that, didn’t work. It didn’t communicate to the people my deep feelings. ... And art, being a nonverbal language, enabled me to feel I at least understood myself.”
When “66 Signs of Neon” opened in the year after the riots, it landed like a lightning bolt.
“It helped the community see themselves in a different way,” recalls Sue Welsh, a close friend of Purifoy’s who was then a teacher at Markham. “For me, it was an illumination that something that has been destroyed in a protest for one’s dignity can then be reshaped to make you look at that very event quite differently. It was a complete education.”
It was an exhibition that applied high-art precepts to the detritus of an uprising. Purifoy was intrigued by the work of Marcel Duchamp, who was interested in engaging objects “as is.” And his considered use of materials makes his work more than just a feel-good community art project. Purifoy made abstraction out of junk and political art out of hairbrushes and drinking fountains. As painter Ed Ruscha writes in the catalog for the exhibition at LACMA, Purifoy applied “burned-out wood” the way “a painter might use cadmium red.”
His work is far more complex than he is often given credit for, says Franklin Sirmans, who co-curated the exhibition at LACMA. “I went into this exhibition with one vision of Purifoy,” he says. “I came out with 12.”
Purifoy went on to produce other significant pieces — among them a now-legendary environmental installation about poverty at the Brockman Gallery in 1971 and his surreal Outdoor Museum in Joshua Tree, with its teetering towers of toilets and mini-environments redolent of struggle and hard work.
But in Watts, his presence remains at the Watts Towers Arts Center, in the gallery that bears his name and in the lineup of programs — art classes, craft workshops, jazz clinics and myriad festivals — that the center’s full-time staff of two produces with the aid of a rotating assortment of teachers, group leaders and event organizers.
Purifoy also remains present in the minds of all the artists he mentored during his time in Watts and in the years after. Charles Dickson, the sculptor, now an artist in residence at the center, describes Purifoy as “a very sophisticated nerd” who was willing to share his deep knowledge of materials.
Mark Steven Greenfield, an artist who also served as director of the Watts Towers Arts Center for almost 10 years until 2002, remembers a firm presence who often dispensed quiet pearls of wisdom: “You’d walk away shaking your head and then a few days later, you’d be like, ‘Wait, that was profound!’”
Eleven years after his death and decades after he left Watts (in the ‘70s, he moved on to other work, with the California Arts Council, among other organizations), Purifoy’s spirit nonetheless remains palpable. “He was a nexus,” Welsh says. “He still is a nexus.”
Watts forever marked Purifoy. In the process, the artist left an indelible mark on Watts.