“One way of knowing your environment is understanding the history.”
Purvis Young was a self-taught expressionist painter from the Overtown section of Miami. In the late 1960s, Interstate 95 was built over and through the neighborhood of his birth, an historically black Caribbean neighborhood ironically called Overtown. A private and contemplative person, Young was drawn to a particularly isolated section of Overtown , an abandoned street called Good Bread Alley. It was here that, over the next three decades, Purvis Young would make his mark on the aesthetic and cultural history of the South.
Bearing the Funeral, 1990s
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
As a child, Young was introduced to drawing by an uncle, but the pursuit was quickly abandoned. In the early 1960s, while serving time for breaking and entering, his interest in art was reignited. Young was encouraged to develop his talent for drawing while incarcerated, and it was here that themes started to develop in his imagery: angels, buildings, funerals, horses, boats, locks and street life. These basic themes were repeated and expanded over the course of his career, creating a cohesive narrative.
In the early 1970s, inspired by the community murals appearing in New York and Detroit as a result of the Black Arts Movement, Young chose a role for himself in Overtown. Moving away from drawing, Purvis taught himself to paint, and began to cover the walls of Good Bread Alley with painting after painting of his Visionary images of Overtown, creating his own community mural. The art world began to pay attention. An eccentric millionaire who owned the Miami Museum of Modern Art, Bernard Davis, took notice of Young’s work. Until his death in 1973, Mr. Davis was Young’s patron. In 1999, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami purchased the entire contents of his studio, over three thousand works. The Overtown Mural could be seen from the newly built I-95, and tourist began to visit. Paintings were literally ripped from the walls, only to be quickly replaced by Young. Eventually, Good Bread Alley became a required stop for collectors on their way to Art Basel.
The narrative of Purvis Young’s work follows not only a community history, but his own self-taught and sophisticated version of world history and the history of Western Art. Beginning with the prison library and moving into the public library and public television, Young educated himself by devouring every art book and documentary he could access. He readily acknowledged being influenced by Rembrandt, Gauguin, and Remington. In Souls Grown Deep, Will Arnett says: “The Art of Purvis Young is equal parts calligraphy, music and graffiti. Its basic themes bump, collide, and eventually unite to reveal the chaotic and cacophonous dance of birth, death, and all that transpires in between in the artist’s world.”
On April 20, 2010, after a long and debilitating fight with diabetes, Purvis Young died in Miami. His works are in major collections throughout the world, including: the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum, Atlanta; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA, and many more. In 2006 Young was the subject of Purvis of Overtown, a feature-length documentary film by David Raccuglia and Shaun Conrad.
Currently, the Ogden Museum has three works by Purvis Young from the permanent collection on view on the fourth floor of Goldring Hall. The works were donated by the Roger Houston Ogden Collection.