Preservation Magazine, Winter 2023

Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Artistry Endures in Joshua Tree, California

To officials in San Bernardino County, California, it appeared to be a junkyard: piles of broken electronics, metal and lumber scraps, pipes, wires, tires, and broken furniture, all scattered across 10 acres outside Joshua Tree National Park. In 2001, county inspectors declared the site a hazard and threatened to bulldoze it.

But this was the studio space of the groundbreaking (if underrecognized) artist Noah Purifoy, known for taking discarded objects—bikes, chairs, bowling balls—and turning them into grand assemblage sculptures. Since 1999, the Noah Purifoy Foundation (NPF), started by a group of Purifoy’s friends and colleagues, had been stewarding the space, known as the Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. So the foundation mobilized.

“We suited up and went down [to the county commissioner’s office], and we brought in an armful of books with Noah’s work and told them, ‘This is important work, and Noah is a very important person, so what can we do to resolve this issue?’” says Joseph S. Lewis III, an artist and University of California, Irvine, art professor who has helmed the foundation since 2001.

Purifoy No Contest

photo by: Noah Purifoy Foundation © 2023

Noah Purifoy’s "No Contest" (1991) at his Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture contains found objects such as a pair of bicycles.

The team reached an agreement with the county. They cleaned up Purifoy’s site, organized his materials, and secured the more precarious-looking sculptures with tensioned cables. Today the museum, which in 2022 was inducted into the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, honors the life and work of the pioneering Black artist.

Born in 1917 in Snow Hill, Alabama, Purifoy served as a United States Navy Seabee during World War II and pursued a degree in social work before moving to Los Angeles in 1951. But he felt the field wasn’t fully addressing the issues he saw in his community. He enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute (now part of California Institute of the Arts), graduating in 1956.

Purifoy saw art as a problem-solving tool and an avenue for social change—values he demonstrated as the founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he created educational opportunities for people who had dropped out of high school. He also served on the California Arts Council, where he established an arts program for prisons.

In 1989, eyeing retirement and feeling the squeeze of Los Angeles’ limited space and high cost of living, Purifoy relocated to a friend’s property in the community of Joshua Tree. Over the next 15 years, he dedicated himself to his studio practice, creating more than 100 outdoor sculptures on site.

Purifoy died in 2004. Since then, NPF has shared his museum with the public and maintained his assemblages, operating under a simple guiding principle: “We ask ourselves, ‘What would Noah do?’” Lewis says.

If one of Purifoy’s sculptures needs to be repainted, it gets repainted, because that’s what Purifoy would have done. He never wanted a fence around the property, so there’s no fence, save for one section along a neighbor’s land.

Purifoy Quonset Gallery

photo by: Noah Purifoy Foundation © 2023

The 1990s Purifoy piece "Quonset Gallery" references his time building Quonset huts for the Navy Seabees. He collaborated with local artists on details such as the entrance doors.

“A curator from the Corcoran Gallery of Art called us once, really flustered, saying, ‘This strap fell off one of his pieces, what should we do?’ And I said, ‘Go buy another strap.’ There was an audible gasp on the other end of the phone,” Lewis says, laughing. “But that’s what Noah would’ve done.”

Lewis notes that Purifoy’s pieces are remarkably well constructed, owing to his time in the Navy Seabees and his stint teaching high school industrial arts classes. They were never meant to be static, finished works of art. They’re living objects that change with the elements. And the High Desert’s harsh environment, with its sun, snow, dust, and rain, is his collaborator, not a force to be battled.

“You can see the hand of time on his work, but we’ve been able to maintain it,” Lewis says.

A crew headed by NPF trustee John Baker of arts fabrication company Carlson Baker Arts visits the site throughout the year to make repairs. And the foundation recently had some of Purifoy’s larger pieces repainted. “We have a number of eyes on the site at all times,” Lewis says.

In the future, Lewis and his colleagues hope to open a conservation laboratory on site. And they hope to renovate the house on the property, turning it into an educational center for artist residencies, exhibitions, and facsimile archives of Purifoy’s work—all while expanding the museum’s audience and trumpeting the artist’s legacy.

“He found things people didn’t want anymore and he renewed them,” says Lewis. “Hopefully when [visitors] leave, they’ll look at the world a little differently.”

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Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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