Noah Purifoy: Art as Elegant Wreckage

Remembering a Pioneer of Assemblage Art

Noah Purifoy

hide captionNoah Purifoy in his typical work outfit "looking like Yoda in factory blues," says NPR's Roy Hurst.

Roy Hurst, NPR

From the art center he helped to create in South-Central Los Angeles, at the base of Simon Rodia's famous Watts Towers landmark art assembly, Noah Purifoy saw his neighborhood go up in flames. It was 1965, and rioters were hurling Molotov cocktails at police, looting and burning in a huge outburst of rage.

And from the ashes of the riots, Purifoy created art — rubble from the shattered neighborhood became objects for his "66 Signs Neon" series of art projects, establishing Purifoy as a leader in the assemblage art movement.

The 86-year-old Purifoy died March 5 at his sprawling "art ranch" in the desert of Southern California near Joshua Tree — an arid sculpture garden where he created art from society's castoff junk. He was found dead in his smoke-filled home, still sitting in his wheelchair. It's believed he fell asleep while smoking.

In an interview two years before Purifoy's death, The Tavis Smiley Show producer Roy Hurst talked with the artist about his legacy of "protest art" and the legitimacy of the assemblage art movement.

Purifoy's desert home was a living museum showcasing his art — and as Hurst discovered, Purifoy still had plenty of compelling things to say about the fate of the "black Revolution" and the art form he helped to legitimize.

"Some African Americans are still doing protest art because it sells well," he told Hurst. "But those who buy it are only trying to subdue their own guilt.

"I think that protest art comes from the same place that genuine art comes from — it's just another layer which you have to get rid of to get to the best part of yourself. Protest art is not the best part of yourself. It's underneath."

He also told Hurst he wasn't all that concerned whether people understood his art. "What is the minimum that a person could derive from seeing what it is I do? I say, after you have seen the works, go home and do today what you could not do yesterday...

"And that's all inspiration is — so, people don't have to understand the works," he said.

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