Finding Art and Solitude in Joshua Tree

A Tour of Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Museum

I would have liked to have been welcomed by Noah Purifoy in person to his desert home and outdoor art museum. But sadly, Mr. Purifoy died in 2004 and I visited the museum in the spring of 2016. Approaching his two-acre lot along dusty roads in the sparse landscape felt invasive. Solitude is a gift the desert offers, but with that comes loneliness, and sometimes anxiety when encountering strangers in the sparse landscape.

I imagine the artist, elderly, wearing a captain’s hat, as I now know him from photographs, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with toilets and barbed wire, waving a hand indicating where to start the tour of his museum. I wouldn’t expect him to be especially talkative. Instead, hyper-focused on an unusual task like anchoring a tower of old toilets with stakes in the ground. Because the museum—his solitary work for the last 30 years of his life—felt so alive and personal, the desire that came about due to the absence of any other person created a space for the specter of Purifoy to appear.

Mr. Purifoy’s museum is located in Joshua Tree, CA, a desert community of less than 10,000 where the economy is based primarily on the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center—a simulacrum of an Iraqi village where all Marines train before being deployed to the Middle-East. The Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for eco-tourists. In the time since Purifoy began assembling his museum in 1989, a small community of artists has gravitated towards the Joshua Tree, but it remains a desolate place. Unmarked dirt roads cross sandy plains, dotted with abandoned shacks and concrete foundations where small cabins once stood. Until the mid-part of the last century inmates from the state prison were bused to the area after they were released and left to eek out an existence on land that no one else wanted. Remnants of the prisoners’ reintroduction into society still exist in the form of slapdash architecture and black market economies.

The location is important. The language Purifoy communicates with is difficult to translate into museum settings. What has been shown outside of Joshua Tree is typically work that has to do with his identity and civil rights. The thing he is most known for are his assemblages made from detritus found after the Watts Riots. An element of political activism is present at his outdoor museum, but it is not the focus. More so, the discontentment that spurs political activism occurs unselfconsciously in the strange world he sculpted toward an imaginary future. 

His sculptures are idiosyncratic, perhaps extraterrestrial, but the materials are familiar, almost entirely comprised of discarded household items from the mid 20th century. Many of Purifoy’s installations consist of small structures that you can walk through, and contain elements that make them appear lived in. The pieces are untitled and scattered about the property, but order is implied either by footpaths marked in the sand or the way in which the artist designed his pieces, with curves and angles that encourage the body to move in specific directions around the property.

The first piece I encountered was a home. It contained a bed, a television, and a pile of non-functioning toilets; the toilets perhaps representing a homeless hoarder's dream of one day having indoor plumbing. The resident of this home may have been industrious and crafty, but their building materials are items that are worn and damaged, likely discarded by their original owners. I imagine we are invading a private space of someone living in our own world with little to no resources. Or perhaps this is an imagined future, after global warming has created catastrophic environmental damage and the only materials available for construction are those that were produced in excess during the 20th century.

There are several structures in the museum with utilitarian purposes—an outdoor theatre with folding chairs in front of a stage painted with stars and stripes; a music studio equipped with computers, electric pianos, percussion and strings constructed of found objects; a cemetery with graves marked by wooden crosses. Sculptures sprout between the larger structures much like the desert plants or derelict vehicles in the surrounding landscape. A tower of toilets grows awkwardly with thick sinewy branches, slightly resembling the Joshua Trees the town is named after. A gravity defying assemblage of cafeteria trays slithers upward like a snake about to strike its prey.

It’s a part of the desert as much as it is a private theme park. As the cartography of American art has become so thoroughly detailed by digital proliferation, this spot in Joshua Tree, where one man made his mark for the last 30 years of his life, may be a frayed edge in the map where art can be experienced in a pure form. 

*All photos taken by Forrest Muelrath

Forrest is working to publish a novel about the sexy online persona he developed for a rich and powerful businessman and politician in order to pay his Brooklyn rent. After finishing his MFA at the School of Visual Arts, he plans on moving to the desert to write another novel.