Way Out in the Desert

Artist Noah Purifoy sought activism without preaching it.

Noah Puri-foy was a social worker before he became an artist, and he never stopped believing that art could change society. The brilliance of Junk Dada—the retrospective of this protean sculptor and collage maker on view at the Wexner Center in Columbus until April 10—is how much room he gave his art to define itself. The exhibit is full of soulful, mysterious pieces that refer back to African art and Modernist collage, but Purifoy didn’t spell out an agenda. He always let the viewer and the art have a chance to come to a private agreement.

“I think there was always this sense of purpose that the art could be a catalyst for a bigger conversation,” says Franklin Sirmans, who co-curated with Yael Lipschutz. It was a purpose challenged by events in Purifoy’s life, including the Watts Riots of 1965, which devastated Los Angeles and shook the African-American artist, leaving him to wonder if art was enough to effect change. When he moved to the Mojave Desert in 1989 (he died there in 2004), some suggested Purifoy had turned his back on his social mission, but Sirmans disagrees: “Even going out to the desert was about the ability of the artist to do something. The work of that last period is more inner-directed, but it still speaks to everyone.”

Junk Dada, Wexner Center for the Arts, through April 10, wexarts.org

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RJ Smith has been a senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine, a contributor to Details, a columnist for The Village Voice, a staff writer for Spin, and has written for GQ, New York Times Magazine, Elle, and Men's Vogue. His book The One: The Life and Music of James Brown was among the New York Times' "100 Notable Books of 2012."