Joshua Tree installation at LACMA's Noah Purifoy exhibition. Photo by Iris Schneider.
What is the role of the artist in an imperfect world? Noah Purifoy, the son of sharecroppers in the South, seemed to have it right. Born in 1917 and becoming an artist only in his 40s, he used his art to heal, to cajole, to document, to repurpose. And for a time he abandoned his artistic pursuits to work in the black community as a social worker, eventually bringing the worlds of social work and art together, creating art programs in prisons and schools and downtrodden communities because he knew art had power and that power could teach and reach into the soul of the disenfranchised and powerless.
The current show at LACMA, Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, is a testament to the creative spirit of a simple man dedicated to his unique artistic pursuits and his social consciousness. Purifoy trained as an artist, getting an MFA degree from Chouinard (now CalArts), in 1956. He was smitten by Duchamp's fascination with the beauty of the ordinary. His assemblages are full of household objects: shoes, baskets, sardine cans, brushes, bicycles, books and scraps. They are crafted into things both fine and simple, a testimony to the power and beauty of the human spirit. But they are more than that. The first group show he spearheaded, "66 Signs of Neon," was literally created from the ashes of the 1965 Watts Rebellion when he and a group of artists rummaged through the wreckage on the streets and used what they found to create art that commented poignantly and powerfully on society and its shortcomings.
Lace Curtain detail and The Last Supper by Noah Purifoy, photos by Iris Schneider.
This is what he said about those "tragic times in Watts:" "We watched aghast the rioting, looting and burning during the August happening. While the debris was still smoldering we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching...obsessed without quite knowing why...We gave much thought to the oddity of our found things...which had begun to haunt our dreams."
This first show set Purifoy, by that time the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, on his path as an artist and activist and influenced other emerging artists of the time like John Outerbridge, David Hammons and Debby Brewer.
In 1972, after the debut of a controversial show at Brockman Gallery, Purifoy dropped out of the art world to become director of community services at Central City Mental Health, a facility created to help address social issues facing the African American community, like teen pregnancy, unemployment, gang culture. He managed the center, which began attracting artists and others who were concerned with these issues. In 1976, Purifoy was appointed by then-governor Jerry Brown to the California Arts Council. "I was looking for a vehicle by which I could find ways to use art as a tool to change people," Purifoy said, and thus began programs bringing art into prisons, schools and community centers. He stayed on the Arts Commission for twelve years.
In the late 80's, Purifoy decided he needed more space and time to do his art and moved to Joshua Tree, where he worked for the last 15 years of his life, until his death in 2004. That is where he had the space to create large environmental sculptures from found objects and could allow the environment to weather and change them. These pieces are now displayed over a ten-acre space (acquired through donations from artists Debby Brewer and Ed Ruscha), and in 1999, at the urging of friends, he created the Noah Purifoy Foundation for the preservation and presentation of his work. It is currently open to the public as an outdoor museum. Two large pieces from the Joshua Tree installation have been installed in the outdoor space at LACMA for the duration of the show, which closes September 27.
While at LACMA, there is still time (until July 19) to see the Larry Sultan photography show, Larry Sultan: Here and Home, a retrospective spanning several rooms and six periods of the late photographer's work including "Pictures from Home" and "The Valley." Over the course of his lifetime he explored his family and his hometown in a way that makes it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Are his parents posing for him? Are the porn stars depicted in some of his images from the Valley aware of his presence? Using his parents as subjects along with his family home and the neighborhood he grew up in, Sultan delved into his childhood memories as well as the Valley's porn industry which he documented for Maxim Magazine in 2001. Using lighting techniques that make it hard to distinguish artifice from reality, the large prints on display have an otherworldly quality that is starkly beautiful. The show is well worth a visit to see this photographer's unique vision of the California landscape and its people.
Larry Sultan photos: "Sharon," 2001, from The Valley series, and "My Mother Posing For Me," 1984, from the series "Pictures From Home."