Los Angeles

Noah Purifoy, Ode to Frank Gehry, 2000, mixed media. Installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015. © Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Noah Purifoy, Ode to Frank Gehry, 2000, mixed media. Installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015. © Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Noah Purifoy

Noah Purifoy, Ode to Frank Gehry, 2000, mixed media. Installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015. © Noah Purifoy Foundation.

“JUNK DADA,” the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s recent survey of the work of Noah Purifoy, could hardly have felt timelier—or more belated. On the one hand, the elegantly installed show, curated by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz, has arrived during a moment of renewed art-world attention to African American elder statesmen, from Ed Clark to Stanley Whitney; it also contributes to recent efforts to rethink the racial politics of assemblage in the context of the Southern California scene, as emblematized by Kellie Jones’s important 2011 exhibition “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.” On the other hand, Purifoy, who died in 2004, more than thirty years after his first appearance at LACMA, was critically and financially undervalued by the artistic mainstream for much of his career, despite his pioneering work in urban and rural settings with the found object, installation, and social practice—models of engagement that have proved influential for artists ranging from David Hammons to Andrea Zittel. And yet such discrepancy seems fitting, if no less poignant, given how productively Purifoy challenged understandings of the object’s temporal unfolding and how deftly he negotiated the impositions of what cultural theorist Michael Hanchard has called “racial time”: “the inequalities of temporality that result from power relations between racially dominant and subordinate groups” within Western civilization.

Born into the segregated world of Snow Hill, Alabama, in 1917 and brought up in Birmingham, Purifoy attended the State Teachers College and became an instructor of industrial arts before enlisting in the navy. He served in the South Pacific as a Seabee from 1942 to 1945, and upon his return to the US attended Atlanta University, earning his master’s in social services administration in 1948. Two years later, after a brief stint in Cleveland, he arrived in Los Angeles, where he would become the first full-time African American student to graduate from the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Like many American artists invested in questions of the everyday in the wake of World War II—Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol come foremost to mind—Purifoy was a commercial artist, designer, and window dresser at the outset of his career. At LACMA, the artist’s better-known experiments with the lives of form are provocatively reframed by revelatory works from this early period, including a beautifully hewn midcentury-modern wooden headboard from 1958 and a captivating Plexiglas cityscape (The City at Night, 1966) that recalls Joseph Cornell’s boxes while also looking toward John McCracken’s Finish Fetish.

By the mid-’60s, Purifoy’s experiments in melding the aesthetic, the social, and the environmental were already well under way. In 1964, he cofounded the Watts Towers Arts Center, aiming to deploy the assemblage aesthetic of tower architect Simon Rodia as a mode of social transformation and progressive pedagogy in the context of an impoverished African American community. In response to the 1965 uprising against police violence that notoriously scarred the neighborhood and set the tone for civil unrest in the decades to come, Purifoy worked with an interracial cast of artists to mount the traveling 1966 exhibition “66 Signs of Neon,” comprising works made almost entirely from the flotsam left in the wake of the area’s destruction. A brace of pieces from that exhibition was presented near the entrance to “Junk Dada”—an untitled Powell sculpture and Race Baby, 1966, a collage by Ruth Saturensky (aka Charu Colorado), both of which rely on retooled images of black youth, were particular standouts—while archival materials pertaining to the organization of “66 Signs” appeared in a darkened gallery near the heart of the show.

Like its most relevant predecessor—Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins’s exhibition “Noah Purifoy: Outside and in the Open,” mounted at the California African American Museum in 1997—“Junk Dada” gave pride of place to pieces that the artist executed in Joshua Tree, California. In part due to a dearth of investment in his work and a waning faith in the efficacy of social policy, Purifoy relocated to Joshua Tree in 1989 and spent the remainder of his life there, creating more than one hundred works on ten acres of land. This sprawling concatenation of objects, known collectively as the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum, highlights the ways in which Purifoy’s working procedures at once rhyme with and deform the ecologies and genealogies of modern art, culture, and consumption in the American West. Again comprising discarded materials—now solicited from his neighbors rather than pulled from the streets—Purifoy’s desert assemblages variously take the form of environments, installations, stand-alone works, and even a gallery, each type resonating with earlier avant-garde aesthetic tacks—particularly the readymade and Merzbau-style construction—as well as with the region’s aesthetic vernaculars. Assemblages such as Bowling Balls III, 1994, with its column of multicolored spheres held in place by two curved concrete L’s, intersect with the SoCal mode of DIY decoration that Reyner Banham referred to as “plaster-gnomery,” though in Purifoy’s case, the kitsch factor has been leached away by the ingenuity of his compositions and the corrosive forces of the desert.

As has often been noted, Purifoy’s work in Joshua Tree places him in conversation with the Southwest outdoor interventions of Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, whose practices spatially extended Minimal sculptor Robert Morris’s imperative to consider “space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision” as constitutive of the artistic experience. While large-scale canonical Earthworks, such as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, often privilege machine-assisted construction and organic materials like rocks, soil, salt, and water, Purifoy’s art—built from the detritus of mass and industrial production—is smaller in scale and marked by the bodily efforts of the artist and his collaborators. In one sense, this distinction is superficial: The temporal oscillation between geologic and anthropocentric time, so famously elaborated by Smithson, subtly underpins Purifoy’s art as well. The beams and bowling balls and other bits of “junk” that provide the raw materials of his work bespeak culture and its quick cycles, but Purifoy was also conscious of the longer, planetary temporalities that were operating on and refashioning his objects. In fact, without the intervention of the caretakers now employed by the foundation that runs the Outdoor Museum, Purifoy’s Joshua Tree works—like much of his now lost ’60s and ’70s production—would resume their individual (and perhaps eons-long) courses of decay within the world; as the artist once put it, “I don’t do maintenance. I do artwork. If it wants to deteriorate, I find some kind of gratification in watching nature participate in the creative process.”

In this statement, Purifoy suggests a conceptualization of the entropic that is matched by the visual flux of the desert site, which constantly shifts in relation to the viewer’s expectations, the surrounding works on display, and the atmospheric conditions governing the area at any given moment. But if Smithson’s entropy—aimed at leveling human temporalities and hierarchies—ultimately looks toward the heat death of history, beyond which there is only stasis, then Purifoy’s entropy is one in which such endings are proliferating points of departure: the racial uprising, the social emergency, the ongoing disaster of Western conquest and civilization are terminal cataclysms that are always arriving. Viewed in this light, his assemblages can be seen as articulations of the now, which Black literary scholar Michelle M. Wright has linked in these pages to the concept of a generative entropy. Calling the now an “immanent immediacy,” she writes, “The present is a point on a time line; now is a dispersed field of events. . . . Spacetime does not move forward. If anything, it moves outward: The universe is expanding. Entropy is not just destruction and collapse; it is a tree growing . . . and the particles that comprise all matter growing less tightly bound, looser, more chaotic.”

In Purifoy’s art, the lived, expansive trajectories of materials; the effects of nature; embodied sensation; and the evidence of artistic labor emerge together within a singular spatiotemporal structure that is the now. As such, his “handcrafted” aesthetic is not the least bit quaint: The rough-hewn quality of Purifoy’s signature assemblages abets a kind of sensorial recalibration toward the object’s temporality, making, and authorship. Whereas hyper-refined sculpture—Jeff Koons’s metallic balloon animals, for example—hold out a homogeneous perfection that seems to collapse the time, labor, and agencies involved in their fabrication into a gleaming instantaneous present, Purifoy’s assemblages render apparent their mixed construction by both the artist and any number of unseen forces in and over time, holding out ensemblic manifestations of the now. This is the time claimed by the work and, by implication, offered to anyone who may view it—or better, to anything that participates in its transformations, especially at the Outdoor Museum, the most immersive and most open environment in which to take in Purifoy’s art.

Of course, many of the desert works are quite capable of holding their own when removed from that setting and situated within the white cube. Indeed, Sirmans and Lipschutz’s installation enabled a focused reconsideration of Purifoy’s complex relationship to modernist sculpture and its institutional aftermaths at LACMA and beyond: Joshua Tree’s Offshore Drilling, 2000, for instance, calls forth both the abstractions of Anthony Caro and the assemblages of Jessica Stockholder, underlining Purifoy’s uncanny ability to at once collapse and recast the individual grammars, overarching narrative drive, and medium-specificity of “advanced” formal languages. Two of the desert sculptures, including the curving white volumes of Ode to Frank Gehry, 2000, were placed outside on LACMA’s campus, cannily situated to play off the Renzo Piano–designed Resnick Pavilion and appropriately spaced between the large-scale permanent interventions of Heizer and sculptor Chris Burden, whose comparatively high production values might otherwise risk reducing Purifoy’s art to something less than the sum of its idiosyncratic parts. However, when shown inside the museum’s galleries, the desert works were shorn of relational context and instead presented as monadic forms: Assemblages such as No Contest (Bicycles), 1991—a ramshackle structure with rusty bikes perched atop a seesaw-like plank—were placed on white platforms filled with sand and thus separated both from the viewer’s interaction with them and from one another, in a departure from the experience of the scale, sound, and movement of the works in Joshua Tree.

While this presentational strategy had its benefits, highlighting the formal ingenuity of Purifoy’s plays on color, composition, and the painterly across bodies of work grouped together in separate galleries, it also prioritized one side of his dialectical engagement with the autonomous art object. Throughout his oeuvre, Purifoy worked with the wall and the frame as sites of articulation and disruption, whether in the talismanic Pressure, 1966, with its crushed metal container protruding from a duotone abstract grid, or in the devastating bait-and-switch that is Strange Fruit, 2002, whose title echoes Billie Holiday’s mournful homage to lynching victims even as the work itself seems to have been literally tarred and feathered, complete with a can and brush hanging from the bottom edge. These examples underline that the artist aimed not so much to consolidate the integrity of the frame but to explore its inescapable permeability or fungibility, like the most adept sculptural precursors of institutional critique cited by art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh.

Like the practices of his unlikely fellow travelers, such as Hans Haacke, and his clear successors, such as Theaster Gates, Purifoy’s wide-ranging activities with and beyond the object pose a formidable challenge to the protocols of museum preservation and display, particularly to a monographically framed exhibition. Although the show’s richly illustrated catalogue—which does not, unfortunately, reproduce all of the works included in the exhibition—provides a useful chronology of the artist’s life and a compelling set of critical frames for thinking about his work, the exhibition gestures toward, rather than stages, his complex entanglements with history, social work, activism, and arts programming as exemplified by his tenure on the California Arts Council from 1976 to 1987. By effectively sequestering the pertinent “documentary” materials within that darkened central gallery (alongside the artist’s writings, a wall-size photograph of the aftermath of the Watts Riots and installation shots of Purifoy’s 1971 Brockman Gallery installation Niggers Ain’t Gonna Never Be Nothing—All They Want to Do Is Drink and Fuck, a scathing indictment of the racist discourses and practices that [re-]create black urban poverty), “Junk Dada” missed an opportunity to model how a pointedly multivalent cultural practice might be staged within the museum and thereby put pressure on those hard-and-fast divisions that continue to subtend the institutional policing of what counts as aesthetic experience.

Thanks to this contextual restraint, however, the exhibition did provide a much-needed opportunity to home in on the formal logic of Purifoy’s work and to consider how it offers an alternate ending to the history of modernist sculpture. In his hands, this narrative does not “conclude,” as Buchloh argued, with the late-’70s installations of Michael Asher within institutional spaces, but is instead dispersed, cast out into the desert along with the artist himself, to a place where three-dimensional forms can test their mettle against the detritus of American culture from which they emerge—and which they are destined to once again become—as well as against nature itself. This is not, however, a naturalized nature. As his very materials—for example, the American flag, itself an abstract representation of colonial territory, draping part of Aurora Borealis, 1995, an open structure that activates the shifting light conditions of the Mojave—constantly remind us, Purifoy was often in dialogue with the “nature” that human institutions everywhere travesty and reshape. As Andrea Fraser would observe in this magazine the year after Purifoy’s death, such institutions are wherever art is. Purifoy’s physically and politically open museum, then, literally and figuratively models the movement that Fraser advocates from a “critique of institutions to an institution of critique,” holding up a discrepant mirror to all manner of hegemonic practices that still fail to give people of color sufficient airtime.

With this in mind, it is all the easier to see the political implications of another key aspect of Purifoy’s oeuvre: In his work and accountings of it, process is paramount, emphasizing his art’s formal and conceptual affinity with Native American and African diasporic modes of ritual and making-do, in which the object is a participant in a process rather than an end in itself. To frame the issue in other ontological and epistemological terms, his work can be understood as what theorist Karen Barad would call a performative configuring and reconfiguring of the material world that is always open to ongoing processes of transformation, whether or not they are witnessed by human subjects. In this way, Purifoy’s practice suggests a remapping of the history of late-twentieth-century art that prioritizes endless material promiscuity and temporal flux as opposed to high modernist purity, an approach animating recent curatorial and art-historical rescriptings of both modern and American art. Of course, this approach rhymes with Rauschenberg’s embrace of radical material contingency and immanence, in which the work is not merely subject to the human but is open to the fundamentally decentered, aleatory landing of “lights, shadows, and particles.” Yet Purifoy understands that the ceaseless reconfiguration of the material world is also always a politics of things taken and given away, things exchanged and ruined or stolen, and that these histories of circulation, of things in time, are inseparable from the things themselves. While “Junk Dada” did not entirely materialize these lessons, it still brilliantly demonstrated the many beginnings that Purifoy’s work continues to offer us now that its time has again arrived.

“Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, Jan. 30–Apr. 10, 2016.

Huey Copeland is an associate professor of art history at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.