Black Arts at Oxy

Noah Purifoy, "Untitled," 1970

Untitled (1970), by Noah Purifoy, is a boxy assemblage structure seemingly constructed of drawers precariously placed upon two thin leg supports. It stands in the middle of the room demanding interaction. It references a human figure with legs, a body, and a head, however, its geometric shapes suggest a robotic or mechanical product. The head could be interpreted as a television or a drawer, one box within another. The entire assemblage is made of dark brown wood and rusted metal. The worn and rusted pieces seem to imply prior function, having had a previous life as a quotidian object, and Purifoy has synthesized the unique parts into an assemblage. The different wooden and metal pieces protrude at varying depths and dimensions emphasizing the distinct pieces. The physical qualities of Untitled demonstrate multiplicity in being composed of several boxes yet the sculpture is unified through the use of color and repeating form. One can appreciate the individual parts that compose the whole and from every angle Untitled offers different views, thus walking around the piece is a component of the overall experience of the work. Ultimately, these simultaneous components manifest into a singular representation of a body.

The decade in which this work was created was formative to Noah Purifoy’s legacy as a renowned artist. In 1966 Purifoy organized the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon, which included 66 assemblage works that used the detritus left in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Uprising as creative material. The uprising was a result of systemic racism and police brutality in Los Angeles, utilizing the burnt wreckage Purifoy and other artists were able to construct works of art that further emphasized the impact of the event. The impactful exhibition debuted in Los Angeles, showing at the University of California, and traveled nationally and internationally. 66 Signs of Neon was a landmark achievement for Puifoy that displayed both his interest in assemblage using discarded materials and his active role in the black community. From 1969 to 1977 he took part in a number of exhibitions that focused on presenting contemporary black artists. Before 1970, Purifoy worked as a teacher, lecturer, and art education consultant for schools, colleges, and universities. He would then go on to become the director of social services at the Central City Community Mental Health Center, which specifically catered to the needs of the African American community in Los Angeles. Purifoy was a busy artist who used his abilities to help the black community in innumerable ways, representing a dedication to all facets of improving black lives and illuminating the issues affecting minorities in Los Angeles.

Purifoy’s Untitled takes on the appearance of a humanoid robot, crudely constructed from the rusted detritus discarded by society. The authors of the exhibition catalogue for "Black Art: The Black Experience" underscored Purifoy’s aims as follows, “... he speaks to the question of man’s existence, saying that there is too much uncertainty and confusion within the black community giving no direction or purpose to man’s life.” The artwork has a possible connection to Afrofuturism, illustrating how one can construct something complex, even futuristic, out of junk. Marlo David writes, "Afrofuturism challenges the post-human ideology of the imagined raceless future", in particular, by recognizing radical black subjectivity in a virtual and digital age. The concept of the robot itself is interactive and invites the viewer to postulate its purpose. What was once seen as useless has been repurposed to make something monumental, possibly commenting on the culture of discarding what is seemingly useless. Purifoy also upends the domestic by combining quotidian objects in unconventional manners. What does it mean when a drawer is rendered useless when turned on its side? The viewer must consider the composition of the sculpture before them and how it fits into the greater context of the Black Art Exhibition and black experience. His assemblage piece represents an interest in the complexities of human identity. One's experiences and understanding of the self, as it functions within identity politics, is compartmentalized with separate definitions and modes of thinking. In the same way that drawers can hold separate items that carry assigned meaning and functions yet work together cover, protect, and display a single being. 

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