I met Noah Purifoy in 1997 at the sprawling 10-acre sculpture site he constructed in Joshua Tree, California. I was 17 years old at the time and was blown away by his work. Originally from the nearby town of Desert Hot Springs, it was my father, Jeff Lipschutz, a painter with a deep love for the Mojave Desert, who introduced me to Noah. Over the next decade I moved around, settling in New York City. Each time I was back home, I drove out to Noah’s, anxious to see the new pieces he had created since my last visit. He constructed it all from found and junked materials that he collected, beginning in 1989, when at the age of 72 he moved his Los Angeles-based practice out to the desert.
Many of Noah’s Joshua Tree works take the form of rooms that you walk through as you navigate the site. “Igloo”is a small hut made of creosote branches and flattened aluminum car parts that you crawl into in order to take refuge from the heat. “Shelter” is an elongated log cabin built from wood and rusty scrap metal. Collaged like a patchwork quilt, “Shelter”’s metal and wood shell gives way to a shady down-and-out warren lined with dirty clothes, rags, an old TV and a rickety bed. Nearby is “Carousel,” a brightly painted wood construction resembling a dilapidated merry-go-round. In the center of “Carousel”’s hollow interior, a busted out computer from the 1980s is perched like a bleached archaeological relic atop a pedestal, while an array of small sculptures composed of objects such as skis and toasters lines the ceilings and walls. Other works are freestanding sculptures in the round, such as “White/Colored,” a commentary on Jim Crow segregation in which a drinking fountain reading “White” hunkers soberly beside a dirty toilet bowl that reads “Colored.”
As is the case with land art, it is nearly impossible to absorb the entirety of Noah’s site in one visit. In order to fully take in its splendor, you must spend time there so that you can experience the transformations in light and shadow that occur as the sun moves across the sky over Noah’s work. At four o’clock the shadows are most dramatic, whereas right before sunset is one of the best times to grasp the material intricacies of the works, whose colors and textures can be difficult to see at high noon when the heat and glares are intense and can disorient some visitors. If you are fortunate enough to make the trip more than once, you will be astonished at how differently Noah’s work appears each time you experience it.
On May 9, 2004, at the age of 87, Noah passed away. In a wheelchair at that point, smoking a cigarette one evening, he fell asleep and flames engulfed him. I was working in Chelsea at the time, moving from gallery to gallery while studying art history at Columbia. I began to speak with colleagues and was surprised to learn that no one had heard of Noah, whose artistic path seemed to me so much more vital than those running through Chelsea. Noah’s willingness to live his life as art, to use art as a tool for social change, to leave Los Angeles behind and to create in the desert one of art history’s wonders—alone, with no assistants—represented the antithesis of the art world.
When Noah was alive he would walk you through his site, telling stories about places like Bessemer, Alabama, the steel town where his relatives lived and worked, and Watts, California, where, during the 1965 Watts Rebellion, he first began using found objects to make art. Since Noah’s death, knowledge of his rich trajectory as an artist—from Snow Hill, Alabama to Los Angeles, where in 1964 he became the founding director of the Watts Towers Art Center to the Mojave Desert—has diminished. Today visitors meander through Noah’s Joshua Tree installation without the benefit of his presence, marveling at its breadth, taking caution not to step into the creosote, joshua trees, tumble weeds, and prickly cacti that surround the works as animals such as the desert cottontail and birds like the desert roadrunner scurry past. Moving from sculpture to sculpture, these creatures animate what might otherwise be interpreted as a ghost town. Wind-worn, sun-bleached, time has graced the site with a poetry all its own. Under the glaring rays, reds have turned to pinks, thick rags into translucent threads. Specters of their former selves, Noah’s assemblages now stand beneath the glorious Mojave sun like lonely monuments for a lost age.
But Noah wasn’t romantic about his Joshua Tree installation. It was never intended to disappear, but rather to act as an Outdoor Museum of Assemblage Art. I return regularly to the site, each time, taken in a different way by the over 100 large-scale sculptures he created atop the sand. While his fragmented assemblages may be fading, Noah’s impact on American art is only beginning to be understood. His conception of art and brotherhood is very much alive on the desert floor, where, ignited by an ancestral spark, its embers continue to burn.
Yael Lipschutz is a Los Angeles and Joshua Tree-based critic. She is the curator of Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman at MOCA, Los Angeles (October 11, 2014 - January 11, 2015) and Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, which she is co-organizing with Franklin Sirmans at LACMA (June 2015 - September 2015). She holds a PhD in Art History from USC, teaches Modern and Contemporary Art at Loyola Marymount University, and writes for Flash Art, Art in America and Art US.