Piv­otal his­tory of ‘Junk Dada’

LACMA ret­ro­spec­tive as­sem­bles over­looked works of Los An­ge­les artist Noah Pu­ri­foy.


Noah Pu­ri­foy may be the least well-known piv­otal Amer­i­can artist of the last 50 years.

In the af­ter­math of the Watts re­bel­lion, which tore up South Los An­ge­les in Au­gust 1965, send­ing shock waves across the coun­try, Pu­ri­foy made an ex­ten­sive se­ries of as­sem­blage sculp­tures that sig­naled a pow­er­ful, wholly un­ex­pected cul­tural shift.

Work­ing with a small cir­cle of col­leagues, he was in­stru­men­tal in re­defin­ing — en­larg­ing — an idea of black con­scious­ness that had been es­tab­lished in 1920s New York dur­ing the Har­lem Re­nais­sance.

Ten of those early as­sem­blages are at the start of “Noah Pu­ri­foy: Junk Dada,” the

much-an­tic­i­pated ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion newly opened at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art. This is the artist’s sec­ond ca­reer over­view, but it is nearly twice as large as the ground­break­ing dis­play or­ga­nized in 1997 by cu­ra­tor Lizette Le-falle-Collins for the Cal­i­for­nia African Amer­i­can Mu­seum in Ex­po­si­tion Park.

Seventy works have been brought to­gether by LACMA’s Franklin Sir­mans and guest cu­ra­tor Yael Lip­schutz. They in­clude half a dozen mon­u­men­tal as­sem­blages erected in Pu­ri­foy’s open-air en­vi­ron­ment in the Mo­jave Desert at Joshua Tree, most ef­fec­tively in­stalled on broad, sand-cov­ered plat­forms.

Few of the 1966 works have been shown in re­cent years, so they of­fer an ab­sorb­ing foun­da­tion for what fol­lows. Most are mod­est in size — some as small as 10 inches, none as large as 3 feet. What they em­body, how­ever, is big.

The as­sem­blages were cob­bled to­gether from the ri­ots’ de­bris. Pu­ri­foy and artist Jud­son Pow­ell be­gan to sal­vage the ma­te­rial in great, weighty piles — 3 tons in all. They be­gan al­most as soon as the em­bers cooled and the smoke cleared.

Those charred and bro­ken rem­nants of a place com­prised an an­nealed his­tory of lives lived. It rep­re­sented the most re­cent stra­tum of so­cial and cul­tural sed­i­ment built up over cen­turies. Un­der no cir­cum­stances could that be lost or plowed un­der.

In­stead, re­born as art, it con­tin­ues on.

“The City at Night” is an ethe­real ur­ban land­scape. Lay­ered bits of clear plas­tic, a few light-bulb frag­ments and a row of zip­per-pulls and other metal­lic pieces are sand­wiched in­side a shal­low, 2-foot-tall Plex­i­glas box.

The sculp­ture, rem­i­nis­cent of a Joseph Cor­nell box from which the color has been drained, is a vi­sion at once Utopian and prag­matic. It’s a por­ta­ble promised land kept close.

Nearby, “Pres­sure” is a small, black and blue rec­tan­gle of what ap­pears to be checker­board linoleum held in a chipped white pic­ture frame. A co­nun­drum is at­tached at the cen­ter.

Some sort of gun-metal gray can­is­ter has been squashed and made use­less, its f lat­tened valve star­ing out like a Cy­clo­pean eye. Un­can­nily poised, Pu­ri­foy’s com­po­si­tion has the look of a me­dieval icon.

Re­con­fig­ur­ing a crum­pled car­cass as an ob­ject of cul­tural ven­er­a­tion — a work of art — gives a mighty push­back to the phys­i­cal force (or pres­sure) that has been lev­eled against it.

A sim­i­lar sense of spir­i­tu­al­ity oozes from a re­lief made from a pi­ano pedal stud­ded with nails. Like a rit­ual sculp­ture from the Congo — an African nkisi nkondi, or tra­di­tional nail fetish — the as­sem­blage is an ode to mu­sic as an in­ner life force, painful yet po­tent.

Per­haps the most pow­er­ful of the group is “Watts Riot,” a tall panel of charred wood. The heat of the in­ferno melted and fused its painted and plas­tered ma­te­ri­als into a dense, lus­trous ab­strac­tion. Haunt­ing bits of col­lage can be glimpsed through its smoky, blis­tered sur­face.

A ver­i­ta­ble Ur-ob­ject for Pu­ri­foy’s ca­reer — and for the devel­op­ment of art in Los An­ge­les and the United States — “Watts Riot” is un­for­tu­nately not in the show. The ab­sence is wound­ing.

The wall re­lief is in the col­lec­tion of the Cal­i­for­nia African Amer­i­can Mu­seum, where it is cur­rently on view. A state mu­seum, CAAM has been with­out a staff direc­tor for more than a year; ac­cord­ing to a spokesman, in­terim lead­er­ship from Sacra­mento nixed the re­quested loan.

The de­ci­sion was un­for­tu­nate, both for the art public and Pu­ri­foy’s le­gacy. Th­ese sculp­tures rep­re­sent a piv­otal evo­lu­tion in as­sem­blage art in gen­eral and African Amer­i­can art in par­tic­u­lar.

De­pic­tions of black hu- man­ity had been the fo­cus of paint­ing and sculp­ture that came out of the Har­lem Re­nais­sance in the 1920s and 1930s. The art was fu­eled by mass migration of African Amer­i­cans from the South to the North. That epic jour­ney is chron­i­cled in Ja­cob Lawrence’s re­mark­able se­ries of 60 tem­pera paint­ings be­ing shown at New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

Pu­ri­foy, born in Alabama in 1917, was a child of the sec­ond great migration fol­low­ing World War II. He ar­rived in Los An­ge­les in 1950 af­ter naval ser­vice in the South Pa­cific. The as­sem­blages he would even­tu­ally make kept hu­man­ity as their fo­cus while dras­ti­cally chang­ing their for­mal terms.

Paint­ing, carv­ing, cast­ing and other tra­di­tional me­dia were set aside. In­stead, through sug­ges­tive de­ploy­ment of or­di­nary found ob­jects, he re­placed a story’s ex­pres­sive pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tion with a po­etic, ab­stract evo­ca­tion of it.

“Junk Dada” is what Sir­mans and Lip­schutz have smartly dubbed the prac­tice. A mar­velous, un­ti­tled 1967 re­lief is em­blem­atic.

Against a tri-color sur­face whose wide bands of green, yel­low and red sug­gest a Pan-African back­ground (the colors de­rive from the Ethiopian f lag), a f lat­tened, skele­tal um­brella im­plies both shel­ter and ruin. Del­i­cate f lo­ral mo­tifs on pa­per strips re­call the post­war Ja­panese Amer­i­can com­mu­nity that once flour­ished in the largely black Cren­shaw and Watts neigh­bor­hoods, while the fanned­out um­brella ribs cre­ate a play­ful roulette wheel of un­cer­tain for­tune.

Pu­ri­foy de­vel­oped a tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of the works called “66 Signs of Neon” with Pow­ell and fel­low artists Deb­o­rah Brewer, Ruth Sa­turen­sky and Arthur Se­cunda. (One ex­am­ple by each artist is also at LACMA.) No­tably, the show trav­eled to nine uni­ver­sity stu­dent unions, not to the schools’ gal­leries or mu­se­ums.

A for­mer so­cial worker and co-founder of the Watts Tow­ers Art Cen­ter, Pu­ri­foy al­ways had so­cial ac­tivism in mind. No doubt he’d be pleased by LACMA’s show to­day — Pu­ri­foy died at 86 in 2004 — even though (and partly be­cause) he was well aware that mu­se­ums are spa­ces of estab­lish­ment priv­i­lege.

Pu­ri­foy left the art world in 1972, work­ing first in a men­tal health clinic and then in public pol­icy for Gov. Jerry Brown’s new Cal­i­for­nia Arts Coun­cil. He didn’t re­turn to art-mak­ing un­til 1987, two years later re­lo­cat­ing to re­mote Joshua Tree. His long ab­sence from L.A.’s bur­geon­ing art scene ex­plains his rel­a­tive lack of renown.

Pu­ri­foy came to art rel­a­tively late. He was nearly 50 when he be­gan the as­sem­blages, and 72 when he be­gan his mon­u­men­tal, of­ten thrilling en­vi­ron­men­tal opus in the desert. The show’s por­ta­ble as­sem­blages can surely be hit or miss, but some can curl your toes.

Take “Strange Fruit.” A fat brush and used can of pine tar hang be­neath a cloud of white feath­ers, stuck on black slats. The feath­ery shape is part torso, part phal­lus.

Ob­vi­ously the ti­tle comes from the mourn­ful 1939 Bil­lie Hol­i­day song about lynch­ing, its lyrics penned by Jewish so­cial­ist Abel Meeropol, who later took in the or­phaned chil­dren of ex­e­cuted Cold War spies Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg. And the ma­te­rial plainly refers to the hor­ror of tar­ring and feath- er­ing, an Amer­i­can prac­tice dat­ing to the Revo­lu­tion.

Yet Pu­ri­foy’s as­sem­blage was made in 2002. Reach­ing into his na­tion’s his­tory, he surely knew that tar­ring and feath­er­ing aims to co­erce con­form­ity to the will of the rab­ble through public hu­mil­i­a­tion of its vic­tim. His as­sem­blage res­onates against an aw­ful year when Amer­i­can mob jus­tice, det­o­nated by the hor­ror of 9/11, pro­duced a ru­inous march to war in Iraq.

Strange fruit, in­deed. The show, stud­ded with such nuggets, should not be missed.

Robert Wede­meyer Noah Pu­ri­foy Foun­da­tion / LACMA

“STRANGE FRUIT” as­sem­blage refers to tar­ring and feath­er­ing.

Pho­tog raphs from Noah Pu­ri­foy Foun­da­tion / LACMA

“PRES­SURE” has the look of a me­dieval icon. It is among the found-art pieces on dis­play at LACMA.

AS­SEM­BLAGE SCULP­TURE called “Ode to Frank Gehry” by Noah Pu­ri­foy is among works in­stalled out­doors as part of LACMA’s “Junk Dada” 70-piece ret­ro­spec­tive of the of­ten-over­looked artist’s work.

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