Friday, June 5, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "No Contest" (on Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada)

no contest
by Douglas Messerli

Noah Purifoy Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, curated by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art / I saw the show on Wednesday, June 3, 2015

When poet-novelist Fanny Howe was last in Los Angeles—as we dined with our mutual friend Diana Saves in late 2014 at The Roof restaurant on top of the Wilshire Hotel, a block away from my office—she suddenly asked, in the midst of conversation, “So who is this Noah Purifoy?” I shook my head, momentarily confusing her question with another “Noah” with whom we were both acquainted, before answering, “I don’t know his work, but LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) is dong a big show of him in the next couple of months.

     She had obviously been on a visit to his remarkable on-site desert exhibitions of his work near Joshua Tree National Memorial, where he had created a distinctive series of “room-like” sculptures, which people describe as being something close to a “city of art.” I had never seen the work, but looked forward to viewing selections from it which I saw the other day at LACMA, presenting a wide range of his art and six works from his desert installations.

     The show at LACMA nearly made me ask this same question, although the accompanying material in the catalogue, wall didactic material, and press release information made it quite clear just who Noah Purifoy was as individual. But I was startled about the fact that I’d never before encountered this brilliant artist’s creations, as if somehow somebody had been keeping a big secret from the art world. For Purifoy is not just a local phenomenon—which he most certainly was when one considers his many years as an administrator of the Watts Towers Arts Center in the 1960s and Director of Community Services at Central City Mental Health facility in the early 1970s, and his later involvement with the California Arts Council—but is clearly a significant sculptor working in an international tradition of assemblage and so-called “junk” art that can be directly traced back at least to the Dadaist groups of the early 20th century.
   Trained in art at the Los Angeles Chouinard Art Institute (which was later to become CalArts), Purifoy was attracted to art-making through the works of artists like Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, and the outsider creator Simon Rodia, and first gained attention for his work when, after the devastating Watts riots of 1965, he and a group of artists (Deborah Brewer, Judson Powell, Ruth Saturensky, and Arthur Secunda) scoured through the burned debris of destroyed neighborhoods for the bits and pieces of material that would make up the artworks which were shown as 66 Signs of Neon across the country between 1966 and 1969. The work, filled with pieces of stunning beauty and wonderment, is shown in the new Purifoy exhibition for the first time since that decade. Given the cleverness and originality of some of this work, it is worth quoting Purifoy’s explanation of how that art came to be:


        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, but unlike others, obsessed without quite
        knowing why. By September…we had collected three tons of
        charred wood and fire-molded debris…We gave much through
        to the oddity of our found things. Often the smell of the debris…
        turned our thoughts to what were and were not tragic times in
        Watts and to what to do with the junk we had collected, which
        had begun to haunt our dreams.


    In works such as Drum Song,Untitled (Watts Remains), both from 1966 and Untitled of 1967, it is almost as if Purifoy defies the meaninglessness of so much destruction by pulling together items from the ashes with such great ingenuity and a sophisticated sense of color and balance that we cannot truly imagine these as emanating from the anger and hate between races. If there was ever an example of art as a healing force—a concept reiterated by Purifoy again and again through his work as a social worker and psychologist—the pieces of 66 Signs of Neon demonstrate it.

     The works he created immediately after that watershed moment in his art career continue to reveal the artist’s ability to wittily reuse materials, including the several fabric-based works such as Rags and Old Iron II (After Nina Simone) of 1989 and Earl Fatha Hines of 1990, and the stunning constructions and assemblages such as Zulu (1989), Black, Brown and Beige (After Duke Ellington) (1989), For Lady Bird (1987-89), The Door (1988), and The Last Supper (1988). In these works, Purifoy continued to explore through collage and assemblage ways in which to celebrate some of the Black and White figures who had represented significant bridges between the cultural and racial divides of American life, while yet retaining a great sense of humor and gracefulness. While certainly connecting himself, through his work, with the concepts of “art brut,” Purifoy’s particular manifestation of various constructions of his oeuvre represent a sense of delicacy and elegance that one does expect to find. It is in the positioning of his combines, the balance and detail between the macro and mirco that matter. If upon seeing his works we are immediately taken aback by their power, we are still drawn into them, forced to inspect them further for their substantial intimate messages. If one is momentarily awed by Black, Brown and Beige (After Duke Ellington), for example, we are asked to come forward and explore the work’s various surfaces: the intricate lattices and ladder-like structures that connect the body of this multifaceted (symbolized in Purifoy’s work by many hands) composer, pianist, and conductor.

     At the age of 72, an age when most artists are pulling back from their creative efforts, Purifoy, with the help of friends, purchased land in the California desert near Joshua Tree, and set out, over the next 15 years, to create a virtual city of assemblage. His large desert junk creations sprawling over a ten-acre parcel, consists of more than 120 large-scale sculptures, made completely out of junk, The Purifoy park in the Mojave has become a favorite of art connoisseurs who travel to Joshua Tree to observe how these large pieces, subject to intense heat, wind, and the local lizards, birds, and snakes, are altered through time. Yet for most viewers, the six pieces represented in this show will have to serve as testimony to Purifoy’s grand desert creations.

     Almost all of these works, in particular, No Contest (bicycles) of 1991, From the Point of View of the Little People of 1994, and Ode to Frank Gehry (1999)—the last of particular significance given LAMA’s upcoming Frank Gehry show—are grand testaments to just what I’ve described above, being works that brilliantly combine wit, grace, and a vastness of vision to shift our initial awe and shock to a sense of fascination and childlike wonderment.

     And here too we sense a kind of comical absurdity. There is indeed “no contest” for the two rusted bicycles (one locked into an upside-down position), angled atop what appears to be a clapboard shack.
      Yet, there is also a sense of bemused bravura about Purifoy’s title, as if he is suggesting that in the very creation of this ridiculous situation the artist has already won, hands down, whatever race in which he might have been expected to participate. And there is no question, at least to this viewer, that Purifoy is right. He was won us over to his ingenious vision of the world before even leaving the starting line. Working basically in quietude and isolation, and with materials that most of us could not even imagine to be reused to create such objects of beauty, Noah Purifoy has indeed created a world that represents only his gifted imagination.

Los Angeles, June 5, 2015
Reprinted from Art Là-bas (June 2015).