Born in Snow Hill, Alabama, Purifoy received a B.S. in education from the Alabama State Teachers College in 1943, and a M.S.W. in social service administration from Georgia’s Atlanta University in 1948. He spent several years practicing social work in Cleveland, and then Los Angeles where he enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, now CalArts, as the school’s first full-time African-American student. He graduated with a B.F.A. in 1956.
Purifoy co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles in 1964; the next year the Watts neighborhood, in which it is located, was the scene of intense racial riots. Using debris that he collected in the aftermath Purifoy assembled a series of artworks, which were displayed in the traveling group show 66 Signs of Neon that he co-organized with artist Judson Powell. The exhibit, which traveled the country, marked the beginning of Purifoy’s work with assemblage sculpture, a style with which he became widely associated. He returned to social work briefly in the early 1970s, and then in 1976 he was appointed to the California Arts Commission by Governor Jerry Brown, where he worked for eleven years. In 1989 Purifoy moved to Joshua Tree, California and returned to making art full time, creating large-scale assemblages until his death.