When I start a piece of work I often begin by building a grid-like structure that eventually will hold the construction together. The end piece will be wild and obsessive and bear no relation to the grid – but its there all the same! The grid gives me something to work with, a starting point and reference. It’s like the steady beat of the music while the tunes weave around it.
One of the places I would like to visit is Los Angeles – by the nineteen sixties a thriving art scene had established itself there, with many artists working in assemblage and using found materials. Assemblage was popular in the West Coast, not only because of the availability of cheap and disposable materials but because there wasn’t the commercial art network there was in New York.
An artist who should be far better known from this period in LA is Noah Purifoy. He was a social worker, teacher and assemblage artist, who had served in the US navy during WW2 and settled in LA in 1950. Originally from Alabama he was based in the Watts community in South Central LA. This was the hub of the Afro American community. The 1930’s had seen black people flood into LA working in jobs created by the war and escaping the Jim Crow laws of the south. Even so, schools and housing were still segregated and the black community lived as second class citizens.
Noah Purifoy was nearly forty when he graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute now known as CalArts. And this was no mean feat – no other black person had ever attended the institute. He must have been a very self confident and fearless man,- the civil rights movement of the fifties was just beginning and racism and discrimination was still the norm. He studied during the day and worked at night until in 1956 he became the first Afro American to graduate from the college.
In 1964 he co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Centre with Judson Powell. it was housed in a small bungalow near the Watt’s towers. This was an icon of the city built by outsider artist Simon Rodia from scrap metal and found objects, it was a huge influence on black artists living in the vicinity. The artists involved in the Watts Towers Arts Centre saw themselves as community artists whose goal was to provide arts education for the community. ‘Ive never been happy with the little things that hang on the wall. I perceived art as a tool for change and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential saviour’
In the summer of 1965 a toxic mix of discrimination, poverty and police brutality kicked off the Watts rebellion. There was six days of rioting – Purifoy was able to see what was happening from the arts centre.
‘I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid, I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a gold mine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it…the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course’
The material Purifoy and Powell found was turned into the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon. Working with a team of artists they created the work in just thirty days in order to exhibit it at the Simon Rodia Commemorative Watts Renaissance of the Arts Festival in the spring of 1966.
‘We did not intend to provoke…We were talking about art that would demonstrate how within oneself there’s a creative process going on all the time and that one’s life should also encompass the creative process. We were trying to experiment with how you tie the art process in with existence’
The exhibition spent the next three years touring universities and galleries around the country. But afterwards it fell into obscurity and much of the work was lost.
Purifoy went on to exhibit work in numerous exhibitions devoted to African American art, while creating assemblage sculpture he was also director of social services at Central City Community Mental Health Centre.
In 1967 two artists opened a gallery that hoped to address the discrimination in the LA art world. In 1971 Purify used this gallery to install show called ‘Niggers Ain’t Gonna Be Nothing – All They Want To Do Is Drink and Fuck.’ As the title suggests it was a very controversial and provocative show.
For a long time Noah served as a founding member of the California Arts Council where he helped to develop programmes for schools and prisons. His efforts to change things and improve peoples lives were bogged down by administration and lack of funds.
On August first 1989 he left LA and moved to a five acre piece of desert near Joshua Tree National Park that his friend had invited him to build upon. Purifoy was a craftsman – he had worked in interior design and window dressing, learnt to be a carpenter in the navy and knew welding, maintenance and other technical skills. These he began to put to good use in the desert. ‘I’d been wanting to do environmental sculpture for a long time. I did a piece at the Brockman Gallery ….and ever since then, I’ve wanted to do environmental sculpture. But since you don’t have the room in Los Angeles, I moved out here’.
He lived modestly in the desert in a trailer for the rest of his life, building over 120 pieces of environmental artwork. Noah Purifoy died in a fire in his trailer on March 5th 2004. He was 86.
Discovering Noah Purify has made me realise that parallel to the contemporary art scenes growing up in the American fifties and sixties there was another creative world that we are only just learning about. Ive learnt about artists such as David Hammons, Charles White and Timothy Washington.
It seems today that a mountain of Afro American talent has at last been allowed to blossom – Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, Ellen Gallagher, Mark Bradford to name but a few. Noah Purifoy and his generation laid the foundations for this.
There is a really good short movie about him at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3tEFxYLQm0