Junk Dada: Noah Purifoy’s Desert Sculpture

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, Joshua Tree, CA. Artist Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) used found items to create assemblage sculpture that was dubbed “Junk Dada.” The title feels dead-on. In the surreal Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum (63030 Blair Ln., Joshua Tree, sunrise-sunset daily, free but donations appreciated), metal, plywood, porcelain, paper, cotton and glass are twisted and stacked into sculptures spread across 10 acres of an otherworldly artscape.



Born in 1917 in Snow Hill, Alabama, Purifoy was almost 40 when he received his BFA from Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts). He was the school’s first full time African American student. He spent much of his life in Los Angeles working in public policy and co-founding the Watts Towers Art Center. Using found objects to create sculpture, Purifoy devoted himself to art and social change to become a pivotal American artist.

Purifoy launched his career as a sculptor with his collection of 66 signs of Neon (1966), assembled from the charred wreckage of debris he collected from the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, In the late 1980s, he moved to Joshua Tree full-time, creating large-scale art on the Mojave Desert floor.

The sculptures in this outdoor desert museum are whimsical, political and comical with broken pieces and discarded junk mended into recognizable shapes. Made from cheap plywood and gaudy paint, the interior of the brightly colored Carousel is jammed with computer monitors, discarded office machinery and analog artifacts. Other sculptures, such as Shelter and Theater, are reminiscent of abandoned mining camps and Wild West towns, resuscitated once again into a cobbled together reminder of the American Dream scattered across rocky desert.

In 2015 several of Purifoy’s sculptures were featured in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s a testament to the strength of his sculpture that the pieces held their own even when removed from their desert context and featured in a more sterile museum space.




More posts like this can be found in the travel guide Moon Palm Springs and Joshua Tree by Jenna Blough where this piece was originally published.


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