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Purvis Young (American, 1943-2010)
Portrait of 2 Standing Figures
Oil paint on industrial fabric mounted to a coarsely woven mat
40 x 36 inches

Purvis Young (1943-2010) was a self-taught African-American artist who drew inspiration from the urban subculture where he grew up in the decaying neighborhood of Overtown, Miami. Overton is historically black and was once known as “the Harlem of the South.” The area was devastated when Interstate 95 was built right through it as part of urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and ’60s. Young began drawing as a boy, but eventually drifted away from art only to find himself incarcerated for 3 years at a state penitentiary for breaking and entering from 1961 to 1964.

While serving his sentence, Young took up drawing again and after his release, he spent countless hours devouring books by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, El Greco, Daumier, Gaugin Picasso, etc., exploring the emotive power of line, form, and color.

Young created unique works of art on discarded pieces of wood, carpet scraps, pieces of fabric, tabletops, and castoff books¬¬. Firefighters who were painting hydrants would bring him what was left in their buckets. He would produce images that reflected his response to the human condition as he experienced it in the South. Signature pieces featured vibrant colors, squiggling lines, distorted and stringy figures with their long arms outstretched to the sky. Angels, he said, visited him and told him to paint. “I didn’t have nothing going for myself. That was the onliest thing I could mostly do.” His work embodies a raw, emotional quality tinged with sweet and joyful elements that reflects Young’s desire, as he put it, to paint “what’s on my mind.”

He returned to the same subjects over and over again: busy cityscapes full of trucks and buses, and wild horses. The crowds of people in his work danced, prayed, and grieved-often with a sense of urgency. Pregnant women were a recurrent theme; Purvis imagined them giving birth to angels and bringing forth a new nation. Sometimes his pregnant women had dozens of squiggly babies around them.

Beginning in the 1970’s, Young began to find some local fame for his large murals with his found materials that he’d nail to the boarded-up storefronts. Eventually tourists began to find the murals and would occasionally buy pieces directly from the walls. Young’s standing in the art world was solidified in 1994 when the Smithsonian American Art Museum bought one of his works, an untitled piece from around 1987. They went on to acquire four more of his pieces, including “The Struggle,” which has been called “a treasure of the museum.” (The National Museum of African American History and Culture also has a Purvis Young painting. Historical materials related to him are kept in the Smithsonian’s archives.)

In 1999 approximately 3,000 pieces were acquired by the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. They then donated 493 pieces to institutions such as the Tampa Museum of Art and Morehouse College, among others.  

Aside from countless museum exhibitions, examples of Young’s work can be found in the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, two Smithsonian museums, Whitney Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, Corcoran Gallery, High Museum of Atlanta, Miami Art Museum, Newark, Philadelphia, and dozens more. Lenny Kravitz, David Byrne, Dan Akroyd, Damon Wayans, Jim Belushi and Jane Fonda all are collectors of Purvis Young.

The preceding information was sourced from the Washington Post, various books, magazine articles and websites.

Portrait of 2 Figures, Purvis Young (American, 1943-2010)

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