In the Desert of Follies: A Trip to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum

By Joanna Grasso

I had just moved to the desert and was getting acclimated. The locals were a motley crew, including international writers, healers, tree whisperers, scroungers and bird watchers. At a local gathering, someone mentioned a site in Joshua Tree full of junk transformed into things of an “artistic nature.”

A little research revealed that the references were to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum and the assemblage structures created by the late artist. Purifoy built the works on nearly 10 acres of land between 1989 and 2004. Born in Alabama in 1917, Purifoy spent most of his life in Southern California. He was a strong presence in the Los Angeles art community and co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Center. He died at age 86 in 2004 at his home in Joshua Tree.

As directed on the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum website, I wrote to Sue Welsh, once a colleague and friend of Purifoy’s and now Trustee and Secretary/Treasurer of the Noah Purifoy Foundation, and waited. Within a few hours, I was sent instructions for my visit. Tony K., art-partner-in-crime, was game for a trip, so we planned our visit to the museum around a few other excursions. We were told it was going to be difficult to find, but it wasn’t. The car practically drove itself there.

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Purifoy had a passion for the vastness and mystery of the Morongo Valley. He shared a certain sense of creative style in his found object and assemblage work with others in his generation like Beat Artist George Herms, where line and form dance around the framework of humor and chaos. These artworks can be categorized as an admiration for the “thingness” of things. By this I mean the materiality of the object is admired for what it is, and the audience is allowed to fill-in meaning and associations, or simply enjoy the temporality of the object and its placement.

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It’s not hard to make the reference in this work to street meters, just as easily as the forms can be seen as people lined-up on the trail through the sculpture park.

Photos: Joanna Grasso, 2014.

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In June during our visit, Purifoy’s work looked as though it was forgotten and ready to collapse at any moment. But before this, each of these objects had been carefully placed by the artist. It was as if time had fallen in upon itself—there was no clear indication of just how long anything had been out in the desert. To me, Purifoy’s works seemed like remnants or trophies of the past, like memories jutting out of the sand. They stood tall in the elements, proudly reciting the artist’s intention. There was also a peaceful grounding sensation to the works.

This place is magical, a certain sense of freedom emanates from not only the works but also the site. Even when they (the sculptures) seem to shout, there is a defining silence to the landscape.

I realized how satisfied I had become that art comes in a box or on a wall, but I can see now how this inevitably creates a barrier. Purifoy’s sculpture park brought up questions about well established ideas about artwork construction, value, and preservation.

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Purifoy’s sculptures are anthropomorphic and architectural. Some acted as shelters, others as remnants, some like witnesses—witnesses with secrets.

Being in the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum is like walking through a painting; textures, shades, layers, pigments, all there just reassembled.

What still resonates with me is the sense of freedom I felt there, and with which I left. No lines, no tickets, no bells or sirens. My ability to move through the spaces and relate to the pieces was entirely at my will, like reading a book where you are able to absorb and obsess at your own pace as the plot unfolds. It’s is a rare gift to experience something so significant without someone else framing things for you.

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It is impossible to visit the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum without at least considering the implications for museums and their role in the conservation of artworks. Currently, LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) is in the planning stages of a retrospective exhibition of Purifoy’s sculptures, many of which will be on loan from the Joshua Tree sculpture park. How do they plan on mediating the removal of artwork that is enmeshed in a landscape? And I wonder what will be used (as normal part of museum protocol) to measure condition of the artworks? More than a logistical question for me as an exhibition designer and artist curator, I am deeply interested in the ramifications of the sculptures’ absence to both the site, once the sculptures are removed, and the artworks themselves once they are on display in a gallery. The entire experience showed me the importance of context to perception.

In the end, Tony and I resolved to let the argument slowly erode, as were the sculptures themselves, in hopes of clarity materializing with the passage of time… and a cold beer.

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