Noah Purifoy

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, in North Joshua Tree, is a priceless treasure.

Purifoy fascinates me because of his background in social work. He was both a major artist and a significant figure in community programs and education. He was also a sophisticated, erudite artist who, according to everything I’ve learned about him, did not get caught up in the politics and materialism of the art world.

He is my favorite American artist. I am not an art historian, but I am an enthusiastic amateur admirer of art, and until recently I had three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh. I now have four.

The Outdoor Museum rewards repeat visits as a great book rewards multiple readings. This time when we arrived, a woman introduced herself as the caretaker, Pat. She handed us new brochures and welcomed us to the site.

We started with “Carousel,” one of my favorite pieces – a round “building” decorated inside with a collection of 1980s-era computer parts. Near “Carousel” is my very favorite piece at the museum: “Ode to Frank Gehry,” at right below.


I read this piece as both homage and critique. Yes, Purifoy pays tribute to the “starchitect,” but he also seems to chip away a bit at Gehry’s mystique – I can do that, too, Purifoy seems to be telling us.

This was the piece that made me a Purifoy admirer when we first visited the Outdoor Museum a few years ago.

The eastern end of the Outdoor Museum has two pieces that especially resonate with me: “Adrian’s Little Theater” (left) and “Gallows.”

“Adrian’s Little Theater” is one of two theater-themed assemblages at the Outdoor Museum. (The other is next to Carousel.) The presence of two such pieces on the property suggests how important the one-time Watts Art Center director believed such public performance spaces were.

“Gallows,” on the other hand, is chilling in its perfection. It is furthest east of the pieces; of all the pieces at the Outdoor Museum, it appears to me to be the most sturdily-constructed. I am not sure if it was constructed from cast-off items, as the rest of Purifoy’s pieces here are, but it appears as though it could have been constructed by a contractor sourcing his items from the local hardware store. That the artist who was born under Jim Crow in Alabama placed this symbol of state-sponsored violence in his desert wonderland seems significant to me. It is as though he wants to tell us that hatred and violence are, like the gallows, sturdily constructed; it seems to be a warning that evil can follow us wherever we go.

“Shelter” is another piece that challenges me. All of Purifoy’s work is constructed of cast-off items, but here the trash feels like trash.

Irene Rible writes that this piece was “made from the charred remnants of a neighbor’s burnt down house and filled with all the manifestations of poverty that Purifoy knew so intimately from his time as a social worker.” I think this sense of the “manifestations of poverty” is what I find so unsettling about this piece. A sign that reads “Kids World,” strategically placed as a sort of welcome mat at one opening reminds that this is the world of many children–bare shelter and little else. Though I don’t especially enjoy looking at this piece, I think I need to spend time with it: when a work of art bothers me this much, it’s a sign that I need to pay attention to it.

On a happier note, the witty “Library of Congress” ends my post. The reading room may not be the most up-to-date, but as you can see from the photo at bottom right, the view is hard to beat!