Tuning Up - Autumn 2022

One Man's Trash

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In the windswept California desert, Noah Purifoy sculpted a visionary monument from the detritus of everyday life

By Eric Wills | September 1, 2022
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

In the high desert around Joshua Tree, along a dirt road that cuts through the hardscrabble landscape like an arrow, is a museum of otherworldly beauty—a miniature 10-acre city constructed of toilets, used tires, antiquated computers, old stoves, scrap metal, and other bits of salvaged junk. During the last 15 years of his life, until his death in 2004 at the age of 86, Noah Purifoy lived in a trailer on the site and created these installations and sculptures. Purifoy was no eccentric recluse but rather, in the words of Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight, “the least well-known pivotal American artist of the last 50 years.” Knight was reviewing “Junk Dada,” a 2015 retrospective of Purifoy’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The show contributed to the artist’s rediscovery, and since then visitors have flocked to the desert to see the coda to his career—the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture.

I’ve come late on a Saturday afternoon in June. The tours are self-guided, and the donation box, recently broken into, has been replaced by QR codes that can be used to donate to the Noah Purifoy Foundation, which manages the museum. An eerie quiet prevails. The only sounds I hear are the buzzing of a few flies and the popping of some scrap metal expanding in the soul-sucking heat. Then, others arrive: a mother with two children, a couple with a dog, a landscape architect from San Francisco who tells me that the site reminds him of something out of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. “We have to stay here until dusk!” he implores.

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