The summer of 1965 was a pivotal year for artist Noah Purifoy. He was designing high end furniture and taught at the Watts Towers Art Center. Los Angeles was suffering from growing pains after a population boom during WWII that lured African Americans to Los Angeles en masse in a search for economic security. As defense jobs waned after the war, economic disenfranchisement and housing discrimination became institutionalized. This paved the way for an aggressive form policing that lit a fuse which detonated a ticking time bomb in South Los Angeles.
It was in this climate that the Watts Riots erupted on August 11, 1965. In the wake of the uprising, Noah Purifoy and long time collaborator Judson Powell gathered charred remnants of the looting and solicited a collective of artists who transformed the remains into an abstract artistic dialog on race and politics. This practice is at the heart of assemblage; by re-purposing discarded detritus, artists discovered new meaning from the remnants. While assemblage is largely viewed as an art form associated with political criticism in California (particularly Los Angeles), it is also a medium that amplified the voices of key black artists of the 1960's and 1970's (including Betye Saar). As an artistic movement, assemblage disrupted the art world by democratizing the process of creating art while articulating a distinct point of view that was not seen or heard in the art world. The works created out of this period resemble abstract time capsules. In Junk Dada LACMA presented a retrospective of Noah Purifoy's work that highlighted his multi-dimensional career.
For me, assemblage is a tricky art form to discuss because so much of it is reliant upon an understanding of the broader environmental, social and political context around the piece. Without it, one could simply dismiss it as up-cycled trash. The form almost begs for a dialog with the artist, which Purifoy would not have indulged many people in; he wanted the viewer to come to their own interpretations of his work. Nevertheless, if you tackle assemblage like a puzzle it is a medium that affords the viewer ample room for alternative interpretations of a piece. When looking at the exhibit I thought of 3 things:
1. What is the theme the artist is tackling?
2. Why were these objects chosen?
3. How do the chosen objects relate to one another?
Approaching this from a non-academic point of view, by asking myself these questions I was better equipped to tackle task of understanding what a piece is trying to say. Purfoy's "Summer of 1965" stands out as a masterful example of historical storytelling and a biographical representation of the artist's creative arch.
In this large scale 5ft x 3ft piece, the frame is broken into 11 smaller works that include photographs, powdered pigment, a towel rack, a framed skull and two totems of a fork and a spoon. There are three black and white photos on the left side of the piece. The top photo shows a cropped image of two women passing each other while walking down the street.* The second photo depicts what appears to be looting in the street during the riots while the bottom photo shows a charred pile of debris in the wake of the uprising. At the bottom of the painting underneath the bottom photo sits a row red fuses linked with wire and connected to six metal nipples. The rest of the work features boxes of tic tacs that appear to be filled with dirt or ash and a melange of strips of upholstery, cut cans of pigmented powder and a rectangular piece of canvas with a bas relief of colors that appear to have come from the pigmented cans above. Two sections of the work run parallel with one another, revealing similar circumstances and yielding different outcomes. The lit fuse that ignited the Watts riots resulted in the smoldering mass of debris, while the colorful cans of pigment look like they exploded into a work of abstract art. Understanding some of Purifoy's career sheds some light on how the riots changed his outlook on creating art.
Prior to 1965 Purifoy had a successful career designing high end mid century furniture and when the riots took place he was also teaching art at the Watts Towers Art Center. After the riots of 1965, Purifoy stopped designing furniture. Troubled by the false idolatry of consumerism and the misconception that material goods were the key to happiness, Purifoy rejected all associations with the moneyed elite and the trappings of conspicuous consumption. On the right side of the work we see two totem poles fashioned into a fork and spoon. As a possible symbol of false idolatry and gluttonous excess, a framed skull rests on top of the fork and spoon serving a symbolic warning about materialism. As an ironic topper to this tragic story, an idyllic picture of the Golden Gate Bridge sits perched in the upper right corner of the piece. Its presence is a subtle reminder of the promise of prosperity that lured so many to California during the migration from the South. The picture's presence symbolically beckons dream seekers with the fanciful lyrics of "California Here I Come".
"Summer of 1965" was created in 1996, making the piece feel like a cathartic exploration of Purifoy's value shift. During this time Purifoy pursued opportunities to demonstrate how art can elicit social change. Between the late 60's and the late 80's Purifoy explored public policy work as a founding member of the California Arts Council, however after years in civil service he became disillusioned with art's inability to impart sustained societal change. He eventually moved to Joshua Tree to resume his art practice where he continued to hold on to his anti-elite ideals. Much of the work he created in the desert appears to play a cathartic role to help the artist come to terms with society's shortcomings. "No Contest" is a sculptural installation from Purifoy's Joshua Tree compound. The piece consists of a slim wooden dwelling with a pitched roof. On the roof sits two bicycles, one bicycle on the lower end of the roof turned on it's head and the other right side up headed toward the sky. The work conveys the notion of futility. Despite the fact that the second bicycle is headed in the right direction, the chain is broken and the bicycle's fork is pointing in the wrong direction. I think this is a metaphor for Purifoy's feelings on elitism. Seeing this piece out of its environmental context within a museum reveals a stark irony when you think about how assemblage, particularly with black artists is a mis-understood and under-appreciated art form.
I went to see the Purifoy exhibit under two very different scenarios (one afternoon in the middle of the week and the other during a LACMA fundraising event). Purifoy's work occupies a peculiar space among avant garde artists, a "rebel space" where the social currency is traded decidedly outside of the mainstream. After 40 years his work is now being lauded in museums, and while I was at the fundraising event I quickly realized that my interpretation of Purifoy's work was easily influenced by time, surroundings and perspective. Patrons noshed on hushpuppies and gumbo while dancing to music curated by DJs for the night. The event also featured a "craft jamming" session where patrons could create their very own piece of art from recycled materials. This made me uneasy as I felt like I was witnessing a cultural flashpoint where an artist's work is auspiciously accepted by people who are detached from the art's meaning. While the recognition was gratifying the execution was dispiriting and another reminder that it's not always about the art but rather "the experience". In the gallery as a DJ spun music facing "No Contest" while patrons gleefully danced near emotionally charged work created from the Watts Riots debris, I couldn't help but wonder if Purifoy would laugh at the irony too.
* The photo of the two women in The Summer of 1965 is painted over, obscuring a very important part of the image. To see the entire photo, click onto TONDI's Photo Gallery.
Junk Dada is on view at LACMA until September 27, 2015
UPDATE, 10/6: Junk Dada has been extended through January 3, 2016.