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Joshua Tree, California

Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum

10 acres of "Environmental Sculptures" in the Mojave desert. 

Set in Joshua Tree, California, Noah Purifoy’s “Outdoor Desert Art Museum” is 7.5 acres of open land displaying Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures, all created on-site between 1989 and 2004.

Visitors must drive on dirt roads to access the site, where they’ll be greeted with a hand-painted “Blair Lane” street sign and dozens of large-scale sculptures made from materials such as castoff metals, burnt wood, and blown-out rubber tires.  A brochure is available at the entrance naming the various sculptures and the year they were built. 

The sculptures are all assemblage pieces, adorned with “junk” bits like hamburger wrappers, broken computer keyboards, or glass fragments, and most are large enough to walk into and experience from dizzying angles. The works range from overt political statements, as in White/Colored, which features a toilet bowl next to a drinking fountain, to more site-specific pieces like Shelter, made from salvaged wood from a neighbors house that burned down. Come on a sunny day and bright pink displays will seem full with whimsy; on stormy afternoons, the same structure can seem uninviting and haunting. (On a recent trip a visitor was almost attacked by a bat!)

It was the dramatic and harsh landscape of the Mojave that inspired Purifoy to create his assemblage pieces, which he referred to as “Environmental Sculpture.” Purifoy intended for his works to be displayed in their natural environment and process of decay. Resisting the ideologies of institutionalized art, Purifoy insisted, “I do assemblage. I don’t do maintenance.” Thus, he beckoned the inclement weather; curious and excited to see what role nature could play in the history of an art piece, he argued that “changes are an integral part of life itself.”

Purifoy himself was no stranger to the themes of resistance and change. Before moving to the desert he served as the founding director of the Watts Towers in nearby Los Angeles, where he witnessed firsthand the Watts Riots of the 1960s. After the riots subsided, Purifoy took to the streets and collected debris, such as broken furniture and melted neon signs, and channeled his anger and bitterness into a collaborative art piece. Working with artists from a variety of racial backgrounds, Purifoy used the Watts rubble to create 66 Signs of Neon, a symbolic and hopeful representation of change in an otherwise chaotic landscape. Speaking on his most famous work, Purifoy added: “We wanted to tell people that if something goes up in flames it doesn’t mean its life is over.”

Though 66 Signs of Neon achieved notoriety and traveled to nine universities between 1966-68, it was only shown in student centers instead of traditional galleries. And although some critics have referred to Purifoy’s sculptures as helping to “redefine black consciousness in art,” his work, for the most part, has always remained outside the gallery walls.

Today, the Noah Purifoy Foundation works to preserve Purifoy’s site and artistic vision, and has expanded the Outdoor Desert Museum to encompass the 2.5 acres where his studio is located.

Know Before You Go

For visitor info and directions visit the website at www.noahpurifoy.com/visit/ or email [email protected]

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