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  • Noah Purifoy's Aesthetic for the Racial CapitaloceneReading 66 Signs of Neon
  • Brian Bartell (bio)

Just outside Joshua Tree, California, and Joshua Tree National Park, the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum is set off against the mountains of the National Park and the Joshua Tree yuccas.1 Here, on ten acres of land owned by his friend the artist Debbie Brewer, Noah Purifoy created more than 120 junk assemblages and "environmental sculptures" between 1987 and 2004, the year of his death (Purifoy 2015, 15).2 Prior to his move to Joshua Tree, Purifoy had lived in Los Angeles for twenty-five years. He was the artist responsible for the landmark post–Watts Rebellion junk sculpture exhibition 66 Signs of Neon, the focus of this essay, and he was also a social worker, one of the first African American students to attend The Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), a furniture designer, the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, and a founding member of the California Arts Council. In interviews Purifoy said that he was hesitant to move to the desert; however, he came to embrace the environment and its possibilities.3 Reflecting on his experience there, he said that he came to "recognize nature as an intricate part of the creative process" and that he also considered returning to school to learn about El Niño and the Santa Ana winds in order to understand how they would affect his sculptures (Purifoy 2015, 12; Sirman and Lipshutz 2015, 105).

As critics have noted, Purifoy's sculptural practice in the desert resembles the work of the Land Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Given both these resemblances, as well as the environmental processes at work, it would be easy, and not entirely misplaced, to situate his sculptures in terms of the geologic epoch the Anthropocene.4 Yet, in contrast, Purifoy's sculptures, which are constructed entirely out of recycled "junk" materials, demonstrate not only his investment in [End Page 24] rejecting the fetishized art work and the values of the art world but was part of an ethic concerned with poverty and racial inequality. These last concerns, especially, are largely absent from the "Anthropocene" and limit the concept's usefulness for understanding his work. Though today he is probably best known for his desert sculptures, Noah Purifoy's focus on what he called "junk," racialization, and aesthetics dates to his involvement with the Watts Towers Arts Center and the 66 Signs of Neon exhibition, which was produced in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. In the largely unexamined essay "The Art of Communication as a Creative Act" from that exhibition's catalog, he wrote that "Watts finds itself virtually set down in the center of junk piled high on all sides. Its main industry is junk! The essential question being posed to the community by the exhibit was, what is the true value of these materials over and above sale to junkyards for a few cents" (Purifoy and Michel, n.p.)? This is a question not just about the value of "junk" but also about how African Americans in mid-twentieth-century Watts, Los Angeles, were socially differentiated and devalued. In the 1997 text High Desert, Purifoy wrote that junk sculpture was "a concept that, by taking junk and making it into something else, can help make people realize that their junk, their lives, can be shaped into something worthwhile" (2015, 17). Junk sculpture, which Purifoy understood to be part of a creative process that exceeded in importance the art object and that was applicable to all aspects of life, is thus not just about devaluation but, most importantly, about how it can be the basis for new forms of value and is connected to a longer history of African Diasporic "creative" resistance to racial capitalism dating to plantation slavery. This is a period that Françoise Vergès has recently termed the "racial Capitalocene" as an alternative to the "Anthropocene," and one that focuses attention on the histories of dispossession, racialization, capital accumulation, and waste production that are constitutive of planetary transformation. As I will argue in this essay, Purifoy's junk aesthetic anticipates Vergès...


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