On August 11, 1965, racial tension in the city of Watts reached a boiling point during a police altercation between two white officers and a black man accused of drunk driving. The incident led to six days of rioting that left 34 people dead, over 1,000 injured, and caused over $40 million in property damage. It was the most devastating riot in Los Angeles history, and it was one of over a dozen racially motivated riots that took place across the country in the 1960s.

The riots left Watts in rubble, and artists Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell, co-founders of the then newly formed Watts Towers Art Center, spent months afterward collecting debris from the crisis. The debris was eventually composed into works forming the 1966 exhibition 66 Signs of Neon, whose title refers to Watts’s burnt neon signs that crystallized into shiny jewellike forms out of the rubble. The group exhibition especially put Purifoy on the map as an artist to be reckoned with. His combination of experience in fine art sculpture and high-end furniture design, along with a lifelong interest in working with found objects, led him to develop a unique artistic sensibility, and he would go on to produce work until his death at the age of 86.

To commemorate both the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots and this summer’s special retrospective of the artist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the above video profiles the life of Noah Purifoy, from his early days at the Chouinard Institute (later CalArts) in Los Angeles to his last 15 years at his now famous site in Joshua Tree. The video includes interviews with Franklin Sirmans, Yael Lipschutz, and Lowery Stokes Sims, each of whom talks about Purifoy’s influence not only as a pivotal Los Angeles artist but also as a force in the history of the neo-Dadaist and assemblage movements. His interest in making sculptures from found objects acutely reflected the environments in which they were created, and they also significantly encouraged a method by which people could overcome socioeconomic barriers to making fine art. In fact, Purifoy’s lifetime of work, which included time spent at the Watts Towers Art Center and on the California Arts Council, shows great emphasis on arts education and finding ways to make art a catalyst for social change.

Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada is showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through September 27, 2015.

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Jerry Gorin is the director of the Los Angeles Review of Books’s multimedia division.