you never know what to expect at the noah purifoy outdoor art museum

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Travel date April 2021

Joshua Tree National Park in California’s high desert attracts nearly 3 million visitors a year.   Twenty Palms, home of the park’s north entrance, hosts a unique desert art museum.  It is free to visit and unlike any traditional art museum. As two unsophisticated travelers with no art critic experience, we share our insights to help other visitors know what to expect from a visit to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum.

train of old vacuums

Who is Noah Purifoy?

Noah Purifoy was born in Alabama in 1917.  Purifoy had many lives before finding his calling as an artist in the 1960s in Los Angeles. 

Before becoming an artist, he was a high school art teacher and social worker.  He earned a bachelors degree from the Alabama State Teachers College and a masters of social work from Clark Atlanta University. After serving in the Navy during WWII, Purifoy moved to Los Angeles and earned a bachelors of fine art at the Chouinard Art Institute. 

He went on to create the Watts Tower Art Center.  Additionally, he served on the California Arts Council for eleven years. During this time he created the Artists-in-Communities, Artists-in-Schools and Artists-in-Prisons programs.

Noah Purifoy is known for his collaboration on the 66 Signs of Neon. The piece inspired black artists to create political and economic statements with their art.  66 Signs of Neon was created with six other artists after the Watts Rebellion in LA in 1965.

In 1989, Noah moved his practice from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree.  Until his death in 2004, he continuously created assemblage sculptures and installations. Many of these pieces can be viewed in the ten-acre outdoor high desert studio. 

Abby Wasserman did a great interview with him in 1998 for The Museum of California magazine. It can be found here.

What is assemblage art?

I am not an artist or an art critic so pardon my simple explanation.

Assemblage art is created with unwanted items. Basically, it is all kinds of junk. I noticed discarded furniture, household appliances, dolls and even clothing.  Purifoy’s desert pieces vary in scale. They range from intricate metalwork on a door to structures large enough to walk through. 

wire mesh mushroom at the noah purifoy outdoor desert art museum

Where can I find Noah Purifoy art?

Noah Purifoy’s art is permanently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and many others. 

His desert art studio is located in Twenty Nine Palms and is open to the public.

Is the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum open?

Yes, the museum is open to the public from sunrise to sunset daily.  Groups and professional filming and photography require advance approval.

Additionally, guided docent tours for groups are available. 

assemblage art sculpture at noah purifoy outdoor desert art museum

How much is admission to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum?

Admission to the outdoor art space is free.   Donations are accepted by the all-volunteer non-profit, the Noah Purifoy Foundation, which preserves and maintains the museum.

How do I get to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum?

I don’t usually provide driving directions in my articles because everyone uses GPS apps for navigation anyway.   However, I feel it is necessary to provide directions to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum.   Do not just follow Google to 63030 Blair Lane Joshua Tree, CA.   Make sure you take the Border Street to Center Street to Blair Lane route from town.

We drove to the museum from our free campsite nearby and the Google route was very sketchy.   The roads were dirt with a lot of loose sand.  We saw several warning signs about the costs of a tow truck.  Thankfully, we didn’t get stuck.  We exited via a different route along a well-maintained dirt road with no dangers.   Center Street to Blair Lane is definitely the best route to get to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum.

What to expect at the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum?

  • Expect to walk around the desert to see all of the art. It will be sandy, sunny and probably hot. Bring water and sun protection.
  • One hour should be sufficient time to briefly see all of the sculptures.  Allow more time if you are really into art.
  • Noah Purifoy intended to make you think with his outdoor art pieces so expect to spend a few minutes examining each.
  • The art is created with a variety of found objects.  To clarify, expect to recognize vintage household items in unique settings.
expect to spot a recognize household items in the sculptures at the noah purifoy outdoor desert art museum

How many exhibits are at the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum?

There are over 20 exhibits at the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum.  Self-guided tour brochures and other informational brochures are available at the welcome kiosk near the entrance.   

Is the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum worth it?

We are not art fanatics and find assemblage art a bit odd.  I do not want to discount the artistry and craftsmanship. But honestly, I have a difficult time seeing beyond the literal components.  Honestly, it’s difficult for me to look at pyramid sculptures of toilets and be inspired. 

However, the social messages in the art made me think.   The water fountain sculpture provided me a glimpse into the race-related struggles of a black man born in 1917.  The sculpture consisted of a standard water fountain designated for “white” placed beside a porcelain toilet bowl with a water fountain fixture affixed and designed for “colored”.  

If visiting Joshua Tree, I believe the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum is worth the visit.  It is free to visit and a short drive from town. Expect to see unique outdoor art sculptures by Noah Purifoy that will make you think.

white and colored fountain art by Noah Purifoy

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