Black artist Noah Purifoy’s legacy is Joshua Tree museum
For an art figure with worldwide renown, Noah Purifoy‘s namesake art museum in Joshua Tree isn’t easy to find.
From 29 Palms Highway, the main drag, you drive north out of town through increasingly sparse neighborhoods, making a series of turns just as the road signs say “Pavement Ends.” The final couple of blocks, while still paved, are so bumpy that even rumbling along at idle, I wondered if my Fiat might shake apart.
If it had, Purifoy would have found a use for the pieces. The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum, at the end of a short dirt road, represents the life’s work of an iconoclast who turned found objects — junk, basically — into sculptures and assemblages.
Museum is a fancy word for what you’ll find.
On 10 acres of desert, the land where the artist spent his final years, Purifoy created a sort of fantasy village out of cast-offs, all of it arrayed around the property and exposed to the elements. You park to the side of the road and walk in.
No one is there to ask for your money, run a temperature check or sell you a membership. On a weekend there might be volunteers present, but the museum is open dawn to dusk every day of the year, free, with no on-site staff.
Grab a brochure with a map identifying the 30 pieces and explore.
The interior of this carousel has an array of unexpected objects, including mannequins, toasters, musical instruments and old computer equipment. It’s among the installations at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum in Joshua Tree. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
There’s the remnants of an old carousel, the wood rotting, the interior filled with dusty computer monitors, like a control center out of “Lost.”
Three wooden ladders stand in a row, cords strung between them. It’s called “San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.”
The village’s centerpiece is the size and rough dimensions of a boat and can be ascended and walked around as if it were at sea. The whole thing is painted white and called The White House.
The political commentary by Purifoy, a Black man born in 1917 in Alabama, is clearer in a few places.
Bitter humor marks this piece reflecting the segregated South in which the Black artist Noah Purifoy, born in Alabama in 1917, grew up. It’s among the works at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum in Joshua Tree. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Two water fountains stand side by side. One is a fountain labeled “White” and the other a toilet bowl labeled “Colored.” It might be the most blunt and powerful piece here.
Elsewhere you’ll find “Voting Booth,” with three curtained booths, the reverse side featuring three toilet seats, one red, one white, one blue, as if illustrating where your vote goes.
The village has representations of a theater, a commissary and a playground in the form of “65 Aluminum Trays,” which assembled cafeteria-like trays into an undulating shape like a children’s slide. The village also has a gallows, which have taken on new relevance after Jan. 6.
“Ode to Frank Gehry,” background, and “65 Aluminum Trays” are among the sculptures at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum in Joshua Tree. The museum is the legacy of Purifoy, a Black artist who lived on the site from 1989 until his death in 2004. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Some of the installations fall more into the “huh?” category, either because I don’t get them or because they are in mid-decay or mid-collapse. You won’t need to spend hours here. Good thing, as there are no restrooms. (Also, thankfully, no gift shop and no theme restaurant with craft cocktails.)
My first visit was in March 2021, drawn by my positive memory of a 2015-16 show of Purifoy’s assemblages at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for many of us our introduction to his name and work.
And this March, back in Joshua Tree, I returned for a refresher. Each time there were a half-dozen to a dozen others, some speaking various European languages, reflecting Joshua Tree National Park’s popularity.
Who was Noah Purifoy? Not the primitive, self-taught hermit I might have expected, a la Simon Rodia, the laborer who built the Watts Towers as a hobby.
Purifoy served in the Navy in World War II, moved to L.A. and worked at the county hospital. One day, deciding he wasn’t doing a bit of good, he quit to go to Chouinard Art Institute as its first full-time Black student, earning a bachelor of fine arts at age 39.
After the Watts Rebellion, Purifoy and others created a traveling exhibit, “66 Signs of Neon,” the product of two tons of debris and the conditions that made them available.
In 1989, priced out of L.A., Purifoy retired to Joshua Tree, living in a friend’s trailer on the patch of remote property, collecting cast-offs and dreaming up assemblages of various sizes and scales. He died there in 2004.
Joe Lewis knew him.
An artist and UC Irvine professor, Lewis is president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation, a nonprofit that cares for the site and for Purifoy’s art. He saw a 1997 exhibit of Purifoy’s at the California African American Museum and found it transformative, then met Purifoy himself.
Lewis once took his father, a contemporary of Purifoy’s, out to the desert to meet him. “My father called him ‘sir’ all day,” Lewis tells me by phone, chuckling at Purifoy’s impact. “He commanded that kind of respect.”
The foundation had to fight to establish the site as a museum. San Bernardino County looked at the site and saw, not unreasonably, a bunch of junk and a code enforcement issue. Media attention, a campaign to explain Purifoy’s importance and a cleanup of the site resolved those concerns, Lewis says.
Attendance was light for years, with more press in Europe than in the United States, until the LACMA retrospective.
“It just exploded after that,” Lewis says. “During the pandemic it went up because it was outdoors and we were open, so maybe 15 people a day or so. They’re coming from all over the world.”
The site’s long-term future is murky.
Immediate needs are addressed. I noticed fresh wooden steps into The White House, and Lewis shares that the clothing in some installations is regularly replaced and fresh paint applied.
Purifoy himself made repairs over the years, Lewis says, explaining that “art world preciousness” is not a factor here.
“We are in the process of securing funds to do a major inventory and develop a conservation/preservation plan,” he tells me.
That said, the art is outdoors in a harsh environment of wind, sun and extreme temperatures, with visits by humans and animals. It will degrade. This is the Mojave Desert, not the Louvre.
“Long term? We don’t know,” Lewis admits. “At some point we won’t be able to keep this up. It is what it is.”
And what it is is worth a visit. Go while you can. It’ll never again look better than on whatever day you stop by.