Purvis Young lived most of his life in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, a historic African American community that suffered economic decline in the 1970’s. During this period Young created a mural along Goodbread Alley in Overtown, by nailing multiple plywood paintings, edge to edge, to the exteriors of abandoned buildings. The resulting artwork had a distinct style and sense of directness that boldly depicted the social themes of the Vietnam era. These paintings were spotted by Bernard Davis, then director of the Miami Museum of Modern Art, which presented the first exhibition of Young’s work in 1972.1
A decade later in New York, Basquiat and Haring would also develop their painting styles on the streets. While Young achieved a degree of notoriety in his lifetime, his work became relegated to the field of Self-taught Art largely because he did not court the art world, and had a series of failed gallery relationships. Throughout his career, Young continued to create and display his art at construction sites and other streetscapes around Miami.
Young did not attend high school, and as a young man, he spent three years in prison. He studied art history on his own at the public library.
When I first met Purvis Young in 1998, he was working nearly continuously. By many accounts, he created more than 30,000 paintings, but did not care much about the fate of a painting once completed. He warehoused the paintings and sold them in large quantities to different collectors.
Young often painted on constructions he created out of wood and other found material. He painted quickly with oil and acrylic. The decay of reused materials mirrored his views on social themes, which he conveyed with visceral power. There are repeated symbolic images in his work, such as locks, cages, eyes, boats, crowds with uplifted arms, pregnant women, horses, and buildings.
Young is the subject of the feature documentary, Purvis of Overtown, 2006. His art is many prominent private and museum collections, notably, the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the High Museum, Atlanta; the Bass Museum of Art, Miami; the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
1 “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, ed. by Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013, p. 166.
George Jacobs Self-Taught Art
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