I had driven a bit outside of the center of Joshua Tree, Calif., and down a dusty, desert trail when I arrived at Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art. There were no docents, no bodyguards and no ticket vendors to greet me, just an assortment of desert plants and old car tires, arranged in a door frame and spelling out “Welcome.” Well, actually, not technically: From bottom left to bottom right, the letters were arranged “M, L, C, W, E, W, L, O, E.”
At the Purifoy outdoor museum, nothing is really what it seems. Found objects have been meticulously arranged into something greater by the art activist, who received a BFA from Chouinard Art Institute served as founding director of the Watts Tower Art Center and began creating charged sculptures following the Watts Riots. During the final years of his life, Purifoy left Los Angeles for Joshua Tree and created more than 100 works of art sprawled over 10 acres.
I had seen some of Purifoy’s works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which featured an exhibition of his work called “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” in 2015. Contained in the pristine white walls of the museum, his discarded low-brow materials — with names such as “Strange Fruit” and “From the Point of View of the Little People” — made a strong impression. I couldn’t help but think of both Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” and America’s history of racism.
But at the outdoor museum, the questions raised by Purifoy’s art seemed a bit different, the message about the transience of all living things more poignant.
Visit during sunset — when the desert heat is less harsh and the orange light glows over the Joshua Trees and the world Purifoy found and left behind.