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Noah Purifoy

American
(1917–2004)

Untitled


1990

Assemblage of wood, plastic, and metal
16 x 70.5 x 6 in. (40.64 x 179.07 x 15.24 cm)
Gift of the Kathryn C. Wanlass Foundation
2008.60

Describing his art process as making “order out of disorder,” Noah Purifoy worked with materials including surfaces with peeling paint, rusted metal, and disfigured or broken objects found in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Los Angeles that surrounded the Watts Towers. Most of the inhabitants, like Purifoy, had migrated to Los Angeles from the southern United States. They brought with them a tradition of making “something out of nothing,” repurposing glass bottles and china plates as decorative objects in their yards. Toilet bowls and tanks were valued for their usefulness as planters.

It is unlikely that these neighborhood artists had any knowledge of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fountain, the urinal he signed as an artwork in 1917. Purifoy’s untitled assemblage, however, does refer to Duchamp’s conceptual view of the work of art, which he shared. Reconceiving a porcelain toilet tank, Purifoy highlights the mechanical complexity of the oat valve, rod, and ball within a horizontal box frame, revealing the essential nature of the object removed from its original context.

Born in Snow Hill, Alabama, Purifoy came to Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree from Alabama State Teachers College and a master’s degree in social service administration from Clark Atlanta University, two historically black institutions with vibrant art programs. Those skills served him well as head of the Watts Towers Arts Center, and as an arts professional positioned to champion the works of other black artists. He exhibited in the first annual Watts Summer Festival in 1966, an ongoing event that was a creative response to the Watts riot of the previous year.

Though he spoke the language of dadaists, Purifoy also took part in the southern black folk art tradition. His relocation to the desert of Joshua Tree in 1989 allowed him to present his works on a larger scale in a publicly accessible space.

Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins


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