For a world-renowned art figure, Noah Purifoy’s namesake art museum in Joshua Tree isn’t easy to find.
From 29 Palms Highway, the main thoroughfare, you head north out of town through increasingly sparse neighborhoods, making a series of turns as street signs say “Pavement Ends.” The last two blocks, although still cobbled, are so bumpy that even rumbling in slow motion, I wondered if my Fiat might crumble.
If so, Purifoy would have found a use for the coins. The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum, at the end of a short dirt road, represents the life’s work of an iconoclast who transformed found objects – scrap metal, essentially – into sculptures and assemblages.
Museum is a fancy word for what you will find.
On 10 acres of desert, the land where the artist spent his last years, Purifoy created a kind of fantasy village from scraps, all arranged around the property and exposed to the elements. You park on the side of the road and drive in.
No one is there to ask you for money, do a temperature check, or sell you a membership. On weekends, volunteers may be present, but the museum is open from dawn to dusk every day of the year, free of charge, with no staff on site.
Grab a brochure with a map identifying the 30 rooms and explore.
There are the remains of an old carousel, the rotting wood, the interior filled with dusty computer screens, like a control center from “Lost”.
Three wooden ladders are lined up, ropes stretched between them. It’s called “San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge”.
The centerpiece of the village is the approximate size and dimensions of a boat and can be climbed and navigated as if at sea. The whole thing is painted white and called the White House.
The political commentary of Purifoy, a black man born in 1917 in Alabama, is clearer in a few places.
Two water fountains stand side by side. One is a fountain labeled “White” and the other is a toilet bowl labeled “Colored”. This is perhaps the most brutal and powerful piece here.
Elsewhere you’ll find ‘Voting Booth’, with three curtained booths, the reverse featuring three toilet seats, one red, one white, one blue, as if to illustrate where your vote is going.
The village has representations of a theater, a commissary, and a playground in the form of “65 aluminum trays”, which assembled cafeteria trays into an undulating shape like a children’s slide. The village also has a gallows, which took on new relevance after January 6.
Some of the installs fall more into the “huh?” category, either because I don’t understand them, or because they are half-decomposing or half-collapse. You won’t need to spend hours here. Luckily there are no toilets. (Also, thankfully, no gift shop and no themed restaurant with craft cocktails.)
My first visit was in March 2021, drawn by my positive memory of a 2015-16 exhibition of Purifoy’s assemblages at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for many of us our introduction to his name and work.
And this March, back in Joshua Tree, I came back for an encore. Each time there were half a dozen to a dozen others, some speaking various European languages, reflecting the popularity of Joshua Tree National Park.
Who was Noah Purifoy? Not the primitive, self-taught hermit I might have expected, à la Simon Rodia, the worker who built the Watts towers as a hobby.
Purifoy served in the Navy during World War II, moved to Los Angeles and worked at the county hospital. One day, deciding he wasn’t doing a bit of good, he quit his job to go to the Chouinard Art Institute as the first full-time black student, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at age 39.
After Watts’ rebellion, Purifoy and others created a traveling exhibit, “66 Signs of Neon”, the product of two tons of debris and the conditions that made it available.
In 1989, out of Los Angeles, Purifoy retired to Joshua Tree, living in a friend’s trailer on a remote property lot, collecting junk and dreaming up assemblages of varying sizes and scales. He died there in 2004.
Joe Lewis knew him.
An artist and professor at UC Irvine, Lewis is president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation, a non-profit organization concerned with the site and the art of Purifoy. He saw a 1997 exhibit by Purifoy at the California African American Museum and found it transformative, then met Purifoy himself.
Lewis once took his father, a contemporary of Purifoy, to the desert to meet him. “My dad used to call him ‘sir’ all day,” Lewis tells me over the phone, laughing at Purifoy’s impact. “He commanded that kind of respect.”
The foundation had to fight to make the site a museum. San Bernardino County looked at the site and saw, not without reason, a pile of junk and a code enforcement problem. Media attention, a campaign to explain the importance of Purifoy and a cleanup of the site resolved those concerns, Lewis says.
Attendance was light for years, with more press in Europe than in the United States, until the LACMA retrospective.
“It just exploded after that,” Lewis says. “During the pandemic it increased because it was outdoors and we were open, so maybe 15 people a day or so. They come from all over the world. »
The site’s long-term future is murky.
Immediate needs are met. I’ve noticed cool wooden steps in the White House, and Lewis shares that clothes in some facilities are regularly replaced and fresh paint applied.
Purifoy himself has carried out repairs over the years, Lewis says, explaining that “the preciousness of the art world” is not a factor here.
“We are in the process of securing funds to do a major inventory and develop a conservation/preservation plan,” he tells me.
That said, the art is outdoors in a hostile environment of wind, sun and extreme temperatures, with visits from humans and animals. It will deteriorate. It’s the Mojave Desert, not the Louvre.
“Long term? We don’t know,” Lewis admits. “At some point we can’t go on like this. That’s how it is.”
And what it is is worth seeing. Go while you can. It will never be as beautiful as the day you stop.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, degrading the newspaper. Email [email protected], call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.