When artist Noah Purifoy died in 2004, in a Joshua Tree fire caused by his own dropped cigarette, he was 86 and neither the Los Angeles County Museum of Art nor the Museum of Contemporary Art had any of his work in their collections. He had been making art in L.A. since the late 1950s, after moving here from Alabama and studying at Chouinard, the same school where most big-shot local icons studied (Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha). He'd been founding director of the Watts Art Center, exhibited nationally and organized a collaborative, traveling exhibition of work made from Watts Rebellion rubble in 1966.

But Purifoy had never quite played by the rules, dropping out of the L.A. art scene in the 1970s, working at a psychiatric clinic and as an arts advocate. Then, when he returned to art making in the late 1980s, he moved to the desert and spent the last 15 years of his life building an intricate, 10-acre outdoor “museum” from other people's junk. This didn't help his art world legitimacy much, either. Eccentrics, not well-educated professionals, build exposed desert masterpieces.

The just-opened LACMA retrospective “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” curated by LACMA's Contemporary Art department head Franklin Sirmans and independent curator Yael Lipschutz, is the artist's first major museum retrospective and his first solo show since his death. In it, Purifoy's art-historical savvy cohabitates with his rebelliousness and his political frustration. You see him putting the language of midcentury design and California's obsession with industry in conversation with messier landscapes of poverty and racism.

Opening 50 years after the Watts Rebellion and 50 years after the initially quite white and elitist LACMA opened on Wilshire, the show is overdue and timely. Not only does it legitimize a black artist whom the major L.A. museums ignored for years but also it arrives at a moment when many U.S. artists are considering how, or whether, to respond to systemic racism and police brutality in a sensitive way.

Noah Purifoy’s Black, Brown and Beige (After Duke Ellington) (1989); Credit: Photo by Séamus Ó Dubsláine

Noah Purifoy’s Black, Brown and Beige (After Duke Ellington) (1989); Credit: Photo by Séamus Ó Dubsláine

“There were roaches crawling on the kitchen table and evidence of rats around,” Purifoy recalled in a 1990 interview, describing an installation with an aggressive title he'd done at Leimert Park's Brockman Gallery in 1971: Niggers Ain't Gonna Never Ever Be Nothin' — All They Want to Do Is Drink + Fuck. Purifoy's photographs of that work hang in a small side gallery of the retrospective. They're sensual close-ups of bumpy bedding or unwashed dishes. The installation was meant to resemble a small, grimy apartment inhabited by a large black family. The refrigerator that Purifoy lugged up to the gallery's second floor emitted a stench when opened. “People would come to the door and fall back,” he said in 1990, laughing at his memory of the opening reception. “They couldn't endure the reality.”

In the 1970s, critics compared Niggers Ain't Gonna to the work of Purifoy's contemporary, the notoriously macho Ed Kienholz, who co-founded L.A.'s iconic Ferus Gallery and would make dramatic assemblages meant to evoke lynching scenes and illegal abortion.

Purifoy never much liked Kienholz; he saw his peer as a showman whose politically charged tableaux were more about his own persona than his subject. “[My] things did not extract from an individual that which he didn't choose to give,” Purifoy said at one point, implying that Kienholz took detritus from people's lived experiences willy-nilly and then repurposed it to make his audience feel guilty about the world's painful side. Purifoy saw this as exploitative.

His sentiment resonates with a debate currently playing out across the Internet about poet Kenneth Goldsmith's use of the autopsy of Michael Brown, the unarmed young black man shot six times by a police officer last year in Ferguson, Missouri. The “conceptual poem” Goldsmith performed at Brown University, “The Body of Michael Brown,” rearranged clinical-sounding, fragmented descriptions of Brown's body parts, including his genitals. Other artists have suggested that Goldsmith, in an effort to be politically relevant, treated Brown more as object than human being — “privilege blind,” one critic called it.

As artists have begun responding to highly public recent deaths of black men — Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray — at the hands of police, their quickness in reacting to the news of the week has sometimes led to insensitivity. A nonprofit in Brooklyn staged a show called “Respond” in January, weeks after the acquittal of the NYPD cop who put Garner in the chokehold that contributed to his death. The show, hung salon-style, included a number of works that would have been effective as protest signs: a portrait of Trayvon Martin in his hoodie, neon that read “Can I Get a Witness?” But as art, such gestures can feel slapdash, too obvious or even opportunistic, though certainly some artists have responded more carefully.

Dread Scott, who participated in “Respond,” did a performance in late 2014 called On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide. Firemen sprayed hose water at him, as they did at Birmingham protesters in 1963, as he tried to walk toward them, making the difficulty of resistance palpable. That's more in line with what Purifoy wanted from art, to find the right material to get at charged sensations.

Noah Purifoy's Lace Curtain (1993); Credit: Photo by Séamus Ó Dubsláine, courtesy of Noah Purifoy Foundation

Noah Purifoy's Lace Curtain (1993); Credit: Photo by Séamus Ó Dubsláine, courtesy of Noah Purifoy Foundation

“Junk Dada” begins with the earliest known artwork Purifoy made, a gorgeous, abstract, carved-wood headboard from 1958. The only work in the show made significantly before the Watts Rebellion, it's also the only one that doesn't include some kind of salvaged debris. It shares a room with five works Purifoy made three decades later, around the time he moved to the desert. These include a melancholy replica of his hometown, Snow Hill, Alabama, constructed of painted wood and cardboard. Made from memory, it includes a broken bridge.

But the exhibit consists mainly of wall works from his prolific desert years. He used charred remains of burnt buildings, plus bullets, worn clothing and paint. “That's some refined rawness,” said one awed visitor, the night “Junk Dada” opened, standing in front of a red and yellow wooden construction with tight rope along the top and bullets dangling militantly. It recalls a tribal costume but also has the free-form thickness of paintings made around the same time by neo-expressionist Gerhard Richter.

In Strange Fruit — titled after the ballad about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday — a bodily shape of feathers stretches across black wooden planks, a bucket of tar and a brush suspended below. It's tastefully composed given how unsubtly it references violence.

The work temporarily moved in from the desert feels strange in this clean institutional context, especially since Purifoy's move to Joshua Tree, initially made from necessity, became an antiestablishment gesture as people started referring to his outdoor work as a “free museum” and seeing him as an outsider. One sculpture, a slim log cabin called No Contest, with one upright and one inverted bicycle on a track on its roof, pokes at the impossibility of winning when you're disadvantaged from the start. It still had glass windows when curator Sirmans first went to visit Purifoy's desert site a few years ago. Weather broke that glass, and Purifoy, who wanted real-world phenomena to affect his material, wouldn't have minded.

But the artist also said in 2002, two years before his death, that he could see a point in protecting the sculptures if it could help people see the value of castoffs. That sentiment relates to what the exhibition makes most tangible: that getting at how societal tensions affect sensual experience is an involved process of digging, reworking, retooling.

“If it takes preserving these pieces for the world to catch on to that idea, then I'll go along with you all,” Purifoy said. “Otherwise, I don't give a shit.”

LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; through Sept. 27. lacma.org

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