Noah Purifoy, "From the Point of View of the Little People" (1994) Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation Photo copyright Fredrik Nilsen

In 1990, I stepped into the USC Fisher Gallery to view an exhibition called “Celebrations: Sights & Sounds of Being,” featuring artworks and words by leading African-American artists examining the black experience in America.

It was there that I first encountered work by artist Noah Purifoy and I was instantly smitten. While I can’t remember the particular piece well enough to describe it here, I remember its impact. He had transformed a broom into a powerful work in a way that made me reconsider “junk”as material for art and meaning.

“Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” occupies the top floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and it is a wondrous show, a revelation and a well-deserved retrospective of the span of Purifoy’s life’s work as a profoundly transformative assemblage artist. Although he’d been exhibited in group and solo settings, he’s somewhat under-appreciated amongst the pantheon of celebrated L.A. artists.

About 15 or so years ago, I took my parents to Purifoy’s legendary “Outdoor Museum” in Joshua Tree, a collection of enormous sculptures and structures built from junk, recycled materials and discarded detritus, where at the time he was living in a trailer on the property. After we wandered the works, he invited us inside, which was filled with materials later to be used. The man really lived his art.

We lost Noah Purifoy in 2004, but this exhibition is a moving legacy and a testament to the breadth and power of his art, and the influence of African-American life in L.A. on it.

“Making something of nothing” describes his practice. Born in 1917 as the son of an Alabama sharecropper, Purifoy came to Los Angeles in 1950, where as one of the first African-American students at Chouinard Art Institute, he encountered the idea of junk-as-art by such renowned practitioners of Dada and Surrealism as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters.

A social worker, Purifoy became the founding director of The Watts Towers Art Center, especially apropos because Simon Rodia built his iconic sculpture out of found materials. Purifoy used this time to teach art to and inspire such then-emerging artists as John Outterbridge. He maintained a lifetime interest in using art as a tool for social change, and as a member of the California Arts Council established programs to teach art in schools, communities and prisons.

Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada at LACMA

In 1965 the Watts Riots ravaged the neighborhood, 34 people died, looting and burning destroyed the community and the fires raged for a week. From this devastation, Purifoy and a group of artists began picking through the rubble, collecting three tons of charred wood and fire-molded debris. They created a landmark group art show called “66 Signs of Neon.” Installed here for the first time since the 1960s is a selection of surviving works from this exhibition that, in Purifoy’s words, set him on his path as an artist.

Stepping away from art, Purifoy became director of community services at Central City Mental Health in 1972, focusing on the psychological issues confronting African-Americans. He also ran its Malcolm X Center for cultural initiatives.

After a dozen years with the California Arts Council, by 1988 he returned to art making, and in 1989 moved to Joshua Tree, where he had 10 acres to fill any way he could envision. Envision and fill it he did.

Eight of the very large assemblages from the “Outdoor Museum” are at LACMA, including “No Contest,” a tiny wood shingled house with a slanted plank on its roof and two bicycles atop, the downslope bike attached upside down, and “From the Point of View of the Little People,” a piece from 1994 that features pairs of legs in pants and shoes, on a wooden platform well above our heads. At first unsettling, it’s ultimately evocative and thought-provoking.

But don’t miss the walls filled with his two- and three-dimensional collages, combines and constructions of wood, fabric, fiber, nails, melted lead and so much more.

The beautifully curated “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” is worth multiple visits and will be on view at LACMA’s BCAM through Sept. 27. While there, go see the late Chris Burden’s final work, “Ode to Santos Dumont,” a kinetic airship that flies around inside on select days at set times. It ceases flight June 21. Find out more at www.LACMA.org.

 

 

‘Murder for Two’

Merry mayhem and murder as a musical comedy whodunit: The Geffen Playhouse presents “Murder for Two” on the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre stage.

This wacky and wonderful two-man production is mind-bendingly fast and funny, and the two actors not only create multiple characters but also sing and play piano, sometimes with four hands, sometimes just two. These are two of the most versatile performers I’ve ever seen.

Policeman Marcus (Brett Ryback) is bucking for a promotion to detective. He strives to follow protocol but hopes to solve a murder mystery before the real detective arrives on the scene.

Jeff Blumenkranz, who plays all the suspects as well as the budding young criminalist who’s got a crush on Marcus, is spellbinding and works his voice like a wide-ranging virtuoso instrument from character to character.

This tall, thin man is utterly convincing as the young girl, but he also plays the wife, the husband, the mistress, the victim, a gang of youngsters using subtle body changes and flipping from voice to voice so quickly it makes your head spin.

Realistic? Heck no. But hilarious? Oh yeah. How fun is it? Before it even opened, “Murder for Two” was extended through Aug. 2. For more information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.

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