Art in Joshua Tree’s desert
Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum, California, USA
Noah Purifoy spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until he was 72 that he made the move to Joshua Tree. The harsh desert – burning and freezing in the same day with dust storms that could scratch your eyes out – didn’t draw him out of the city for any romantic reasons. He came because he couldn’t afford to live in LA anymore. One of the most interesting artists in America in the 20th century was basically thrown out on the junk heap.
Noah Purifoy may not have seen it this way, but I think there is something befitting about his predicament. He will be best remembered as an artist who took abandoned pieces of junk and turned them into thoughtful masterpieces. And it turned out that here in the desert, where he was abandoned, he created his greatest collection of all.
It is called the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum and it is the result of 15 years of work. The last 15 years of his work, as it happens. For the final five years, before he died in 2004, Noah directed helpers from his wheelchair to create his final pieces. But he never stopped. He wanted to create a legacy that would live on beyond him and continue to inspire and influence. It has worked, as I discover when I visit.
The museum is just on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, about two hours drive east of Los Angeles. You can easily pop in and visit it on a trip to the national park, which is what I suspect most people do. Purifoy always had trouble creating mass appeal or commercial success from his art and that, sadly, has not changed. He is no Van Gogh, who found fame posthumously. It is rare that people make a trip specifically to see this collection of desert art.
For the visitors who do make it here, though, they find a striking world of natural desolation interrupted by human luxuries that have been reimagined into unnatural productions. The items within each artwork are familiar but the combinations and the placements seem bizarre. They look like houses or playgrounds or civic services… but seem unapproachable. These creations force us to consider why we would be wary of differences in our perceptions.
It’s a large site and stretches out over about four hectares. There are more than 100 piece of art here – some of them enormous constructions. It can actually take quite a while to walk around and see each one of them. I find a strange thing happens during my visit. At first, I see the site as a singular piece of art – a town in the desert. As I walk through, I start to look at each creation individually and interact with it alone, losing sight of the broader setting. And then, when I’ve seen them all, I feel again like the site is a single entity… but less of the town I first imagined, and more of an organism with a single set of roots underground that breaks through the ground and blossoms in multiple seemingly unconnected locations.
But everyone, I’m sure, has a different reaction at the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum. That’s part of the genius of what is happening here.
There are no signs up at each artwork giving you a name or a description – it’s not like a typical museum in that sense. There is no explanation of who the artist is or why he came here. In fact, there’s nobody here today but me. You can just walk in (there are no fences) for free (there is no ticket booth) and spend as long as you want.
It’s only after my time at the museum that I jump online and do a bit of research in Noah Purifoy as a man and an artist. His story is fascinating. African American and born in 1917 into a family of 13 children in rural Alabama, you would not be surprised to hear that his professional career touched on the issue of race in the United States. His most famous work called ’66 Signs of Neon’ was a series of 50 pieces made from debris collected after deadly race riots in LA in 1965 (the Watts riots).
But in the subsequent years, Purifoy didn’t make race a dominant theme in his art. It was the idea of assemblage from ’66 Signs of Neon’ that he continued, rather than any overt political messaging. That’s not to say he didn’t care anymore, he certainly did. But he wanted his art to be about a different kind of visceral emotion.
When he was asked in a PBS interview in 2002 about the meaning of his art, he had the following to say:
“What is the minimum that a person could derive from seeing what it is I do? I say, after you have seen the works, go home and do today what you could not do yesterday. And that’s all inspiration is — so, people don’t have to understand the works.”
I’m not sure Purifoy meant it so literally, but I am taking his advice and doing something I could not do before – sharing my photos of his wonderful desert town/organism/legacy. I hope you enjoy them… and can see them for yourself one day.