Sunday, November 17, 2013

Noah Purifoy's Outside: the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum

Noah Purifoy, Shelter. Joshua tree in foreground.
Noah Purifoy, interior of
My children have got me into most of life's great experiences and so it was once again that through my daughter's reconnoitering I visited Noah Purifoy's home and Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the Mojave Desert. We entered when the early morning shadows cast by the cactuses of greater Joshua Tree, California were still long on the sand. This collection opens very early in the morning. Empty parking spaces for five and six cars abut a neighbor's property across the unpaved road, and neither guards nor doors nor walls enforce the posted hours of operation. The Museum is just there: a circus, a shrine, a stunning collection of sculpture and installation existing as a fact of life, an integral part of the desert landscape demarcated only by an occasional barrier of inclusion. We enter the Purifoy site as we enter a theater and see the stage, with imaginations tingling. The only limits here are set by our own capacities to appreciate the unity of action set before us.

Noah Purifoy, Bowling Balls. One of
three bowling ball towers.
In 1989 Purifoy left Los Angeles, where he had been a founding member of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964. He had gleaned rubble from the infamous race riots to use as sculptural materials, and he continued to use found materials for the rest of his career. He moved his practice to Joshua Tree, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. On his ten acres he created over a hundred works from discarded materials. 
Noah Purifoy. Possibly, Three Witches. It was hard
for me to keep up with titles as the map of the site is
schematic and nothing is labeled. But the interplay of
Art and Nature is wonderful and not unusual.

In popular imagination, people who retreat to the desert are saints, hermits, or kooks. Wise men go for spiritual discipline and reflection; monomaniacs discover that odd kingdoms await them there. These people re-enter society either as Jesus or as Brian David Mitchell, the prince of a two-person sect of child abductors. People who go to the desert are rarely like the rest of us.

The desert symbolizes circumstances of deprivation with no joy. But the power of symbols lies in their lack of specificity, so we don't imagine the desert in any detail, as a place with properties beyond absences. When we think of the lives of hermits and saints and outcasts, we don't envision the desert earth as nurturing flora and fauna; we don't think of the vistas, sunsets, or the subtle gardens at their feet. The actual, living desert inspires habits of alertness, observation, and awe. Its phenomena exist on a very broad scale—as vast as the endless sky, as minute as sand-dwelling insects built for survival.
Noah Purifoy. Rear, Ode to Frank Gehry. Foreground, Sixty-five Aluminum Trays.

When Purifoy moved to the desert, he must have been profoundly aware of both the symbolic and specific power of the place, for it's not only his genius as a sculptor that is so moving, but it's his genius as an artist in the fullest sense—his ability to see beyond what he has his hands on. On his property one encounters not only the many sculptures, but also the size of the space itself, the infinite sky, the continuous desert, and the cactuses that grow undisturbed among the many man-made phenomena. In his museum,  the visitor never loses consciousness of the environment and its components of sand, plants, sun, and sky. Purifoy clearly considered and built with those in mind. They unify the property and they unify his efforts across time. He uses cactuses to pull together groups of several sculptures, or, sometimes, he places artworks with a cactus as the focal point. Purifoy's use of his complex setting reveals the observational basis for his art that seems at first encounter marked by pure imagination.

Noah Purifoy, one car in the long train he built on the site

Purifoy's property is on the edge of a Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. His desert retreat was not obtained for the purposes of landscape painting; he seems not to have inspired other artists to follow or colonize around him. Whether he was visited by agents, gallerists, and curators, I do not know, but the site is so unified and concentrated that it's difficult to imagine anything obtruded on his focus there. The Foundation quotes Purifoy with saying, "I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be," words that reinforce the impression the Outdoor Museum conveys, that this work was made from inner compulsion, not for reasons of career.

The photograph (left) shows where Purifoy segregated his accumulated materials or, as any self-respecting neighbor would call it, his junk. Every scrap that appears in his constructions is used with self-conscious wit, grace, humor and punch. The space—as large and composed of hundreds of thousands of individual elements as it is—feels animated by the life stored in those myriad parts and activated by their use in artworks. Because it's clear that nothing is arbitrary in this world, the effect is musical. There are naturally-occuring vibrations, like sound-waves; particular harmonies generated by a place so perfectly and intuitively orchestrated. I've experienced nothing like this—visual unity of such a vast scale—outside of grand gardens, symmetrical in plan. 
Noah Purifoy, No Contest. The "building" is a facade.

It's unusual to find as little repetition in a body of work as one does in the Outdoor Museum. "Outsider" artists may   limit themselves throughout life to a single approach, material, or style. Contemporary academy-trained artists produce bodies of work, based on a career model of development that assumes ever more favorable judgment awaits their ever-changing work, where change equals improvement. 

In art—in every enterprise—the perception that one has succeeded is a great inducement to continue doing the same thing: Success is seductive, even when it's damaging to broader expression of creativity. But here, Purifoy has built buildings one can enter; he's constructed facades, earthworks, towers. There are abstract sculptures, simulacra, miniature environments; some works are busy and elaborated, and others are no more than the barest suggestions of form. There are works that focus attention on the environment, the church, or on art itself. It seems that nothing recurs.

Noah Purifoy, Sculpture made from the aluminum
tube frames of patio chairs, enhanced by shadows
Alone in the desert, though, liberated from the effects of outside judgment, what is there to short-circuit the exploratory impulse? I believe that this extraordinary place is testimony to the stifling effect that organized Art can have on the connection between creative impulse and individual production. Under the sun on the Mojave Desert, Purifoy would have experienced little daily commentary, opinion, or intrusion on his creative independence. Of course he could have built nothing but gates for fifteen years—anything is possible. But his setting seems to have given him the privacy to fill mental and spiritual as well as physical space and he did it in a broad and balanced way, without expressing any observable need for self-replication.
Noah Purifoy, detail of architectural
installation with ornamental and structural use
of toilets, reminiscent of classical columns

Again, the desert sun both reflects and shines like a spotlight on Purifoy's achievement. It seems to move with the viewer among the works on the site, calling attention to the uniqueness of each—to its relationship to its environment, its outstanding form, materials, and spirit.

Separate Purifoy from the art world; isolate him in the desert, away from the commerce of galleries, from separated and denominated museum rooms (Black, Contemporary, American, Twentieth-Century); remove him from having to hear, speak, or interpret Art's professional jargon—do all these things and you can come up with Purifoy as a genuine outsider artist. 

In Purifoy's personal garden adjacent to his trailer

The CV available on the Noah Purifoy Foundation site makes it evident that Purifoy did not at all fit the technical definition of an outsider: He had an art degree, many solo shows, prestigious fellowships and awards. But could these facts ever make an insider of an Alabama-born Black Angelino, whose mature period work is formed from the rubble of an infamous race riot? It seems to me that it's a very doubtful proposition. Socially and psychologically, there would be much to place him as an outsider.

But as an artist, Purifoy strikes me as an outsider in the best, most liberated, enviable sense. The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum is a brilliant, unique place created only by an artist contented with own thoughts and imagination. He appears to have turned out his ideas with a patient spontaneity untarnished by vogues, criticism, or suggestions. The harmonious mixture of calm and excitement I felt there undoubtedly had to do with Purifoy's outsider perspective: He put himself beyond everything that is usual but extraneous to the central work of an artist, which should be observing, thinking about, and doing what is most important to him. How far out can you go? Here, Purifoy is, in every aspect of his work and life, a nonpareil—excellent and right.

This site is an inspiration to any artist in any medium. That this place is so suffused with its creator's values shows the excellence of stepping wholly away from organized art's—from society's—congested sphere of comparison. The desert is purifying and solitude is refining. It's hard for me to conclude otherwise after visiting this sacred place, Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. 
Panorama of Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. Photo by Margaret Starr.

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