Born 1917, Snow Hill, Alabama
Died 2004, Joshua Tree, California
Noah Purifoy served in the US Navy during World War II, then moved to Los Angeles, where he received his BFA from Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts). After the Watts Rebellion of 1965, which broke out in response to police brutality leveled at the black community, Purifoy used detritus from the streets of Watts to create assemblages. Together with peers who were similarly committed to working with these charged discards, Purifoy organized the group exhibition 66 Signs of Neon, which gained considerable attention as it toured the country. While these sculptures bear affinities to the assemblage sculpture of other artists then working in Los Angeles, such as Edward Kienholz (1928–1997), it is important to note Purifoy’s formal connections to long-standing southern black visual traditions. Residents throughout the Southeast transformed their yards into art environments with assemblages made of junked materials.
Arts activism and teaching preoccupied Purifoy in subsequent years. When he decided to return to art full time, he was no longer able to afford a studio in Los Angeles, and at the age of seventy-two, he moved to a small desert acreage outside Joshua Tree, where he began building an outdoor sculpture museum composed of materials he collected from the area. Recalibrating the concept of a theme park, it comprises a remarkable range of structures and spaces that draw heavily on black experience in the US: makeshift living quarters, a computerized “control room,” a cemetery, a commissary, and play areas. Autonomous sculptures produced for a gallery or museum context, Fire Next Time I–III originated in works conceived for the Outdoor Desert Art Museum.
Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander
Purifoy, Noah, and Ted Michel. Junk Art: 66 Signs of Neon. Los Angeles: 66 Signs of Neon, 1966.
Sirmans, Franklin, with Yael Lipschutz. Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with Prestel Verlag, Munich, 2015.