Purvis Young

 

Born in Miami in 1943, Purvis Young made his name as an entirely self-taught artist. Coming of age in the inner-city neighborhood of Overtown, a one-time entertainment destination that would experience stark economic downturn in the 1950s, Young emerged first as a local cultural icon before gaining international attention for his highly distinctive visual idiom. It was in this climate that Young found his artistic voice transforming urban decay into allegories of dignity and hope.

His profound spiritual sensitivity combined with virtuosic skill to produce artworks as nuanced and sophisticated as they are laden with primordial immediacy. While his characteristic use of reclaimed materials has drawn comparisons to modern assemblage artists like Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Bruce Conner, Young’s artistic concerns were quite apart, perhaps necessarily so. In many ways, the artist was far removed from the art world. In fact, many of the tantalizing terms that crop up alongside discussions of outsider art do apply to Young. Self-taught? Yes. Visionary? Certainly. But that is not to say he was naive. Although Young never attended high school, he was studied. His learning would come while serving a three-year prison sentence in his late teens for breaking and entering. During this time he began poring over art books and developing his own visual style. Masters like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Delacroix, and El Greco rekindled his early love of drawing, something his uncle had introduced him to as a child.

After his release, Young found inspiration in the Chicago and Detroit anti-Vietnam War murals he had seen on the news and began to paint. As Young has said in interviews with William Arnett and Larry Clemons in 1994 and 1995, “I seen people protesting. I seen the war going on. Then I found out how these guys paint their feelings up North, paint on walls.” These movements would help him grapple with the poverty, urban decay, social injustice, and unequal access to education all around him. His rich visual lexicon comprises a recurring cast of characters: angels, horses, pregnant women, trucks, and musicians who watch over and protect the downtrodden. Young himself described his mission best, saying, “I make like I'm a warrior, like God sending an angel to stop war. I think, like, I'm one of the figures in my art.”

The urban and social decay around him would become his subjects and indeed his very medium as he began painting directly upon the abandoned storefronts of Good Bread Alley, a derelict alley that in 1971 became the site of Young’s most extensive project. “I wanted to express my own feeling. I wanted the peoples to see it,” he said of the site, which at its peak comprised a dense patchwork of paintings on reclaimed wood which Young had affixed to the boarded-up storefronts. With the gestural, politically potent iconography that has become his signature, his art began to draw tourists, eventually even attracting art-world patronage. Most notably, Young garnered the support of the collector and Miami Art Museum founder Bernard Davis, who would bring the artist into the wider public eye. In 2019 Young’s work will head to the Venice Biennale, firmly placing him in the pantheon of art history after years of being labeled an outsider.

Young’s honors include an artist grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has been exhibited worldwide, including in solo museum exhibitions at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum, and the Miami Museum of Modern Art. His work is in the public collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The Studio Museum of Harlem, among others.