Gallery 721: Pop culture and Purvis Young

The first time I stepped into Gallery 721 in Fort Lauderdale — the second and third times too — my immediate reaction was, This is the coolest place in the world. That may be exaggerating a bit, but not by much. Imagine 6,500 square feet of space, almost every millimeter of it crammed with art and pop-culture memorabilia. We're talking boxes piled high to the ceiling and furniture overflowing with stuff, much of it signed.

But wait, you don't have to imagine such a place — it already exists, a little east of Andrews Avenue on Progresso Drive, on the north side of the railroad tracks. In his previous location, on Broward Boulevard just east of Federal Highway, owner Larry Clemons had only 900 square feet, and after seeing the current Gallery 721, I wonder how he ever managed. But I also get the feeling that if he had, say, 25,000 or even 50,000 square feet at his disposal, Clemons would easily fill it to the brim.

I ask if he has ever conducted an exhaustive inventory of his vast holdings. Clemons sheepishly, if understandably, confesses, "I was afraid to do an inventory," although he insists one is in his near future. Here's a modest sampling of what he'll find: painted wooden cutouts, including a life-sized Santa, by great American folk artist Howard Finster (1916-2001), who blanketed his creations with hand-printed philosophical and spiritual ruminations. (He's perhaps best-known for his album covers for Talking Heads and R.E.M.) Woodstock paraphernalia, including but not limited to an early poster for the festival, printed when it was slated to take place in Wallkill, New York. Vintage boxing magazines. A black-and-white photograph of the Beatles, signed by all four. Movie posters and lobby cards in a variety of languages for Tarzan pictures, On the Waterfront, and just about every Elvis movie ever made. Wire-service photos with a history of where they ran stamped and scribbled on their backsides.

Like many teenagers, Clemons was once bitten by the collecting bug. In his case, back in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1970s, the object of his devotion was pop artist Peter Max. Unlike most teens, however, Clemons ultimately amassed a collection that became part of his livelihood: paintings, prints, posters, photos, and all the other ephemera associated with being a pop-culture phenomenon.

Other interests followed, including the Beatles (especially Lennon), President Kennedy, Woodstock, Miles Davis, Elvis, and Muhammad Ali back when he was known as Cassius Clay. Clemons took a special shine to the fighter and to this day lights up when he talks about anything to do with Ali and boxing.

Today, Clemons is probably best-known as one of South Florida's foremost collectors of so-called outsider artist Purvis Young of Miami. He has set aside a sizable chunk of Gallery 721 and designated it "the Purvis Young Museum." He considers himself first and foremost a friend of Purvis', and he won't even begin to estimate how much of the prolific artist's output he owns except to admit that it easily runs to the hundreds of works and may run into the thousands. Among his stash are paintings of all shapes and sizes and an amazing quantity of drawings. "The depth of an artist is in his drawings," I've heard Clemons declare more than once. If a catalogue raisonné of Purvis' work is ever assembled, Gallery 721 will surely be one of the project's primary resources.

And that is just as Clemons would have it. He has never wanted to be just a gallery owner who serves as a conduit for art to pass between artist and buyer. "It's about the collection; it's about the story," I've heard him say again and again. "The hardest part is selling. It's easy to collect, but you don't want to part with it because it all tells a story. You have to be able to tell the story."

Keeping that in mind, Clemons has decided to try to transform Gallery 721 into a more traditional gallery. He'll hang onto enough to flesh out the narratives of the artists and personalities he traffics in, but he'll also price and sell more items from his many collections. He's currently working out a schedule that will have him stay open regular hours and not just by appointment only.

Since it moved to the current site, Gallery 721 hasn't had much of a chance to be such a gallery. Soon after settling into the space in 2001, Clemons got caught up in a documentary project called Purvis of Overtown, for which he was ultimately billed as an associate producer and for which he provided extensive behind-the-scenes consultation. This excellent little flick played the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival a few years ago.

Now Clemons envisions a section of Gallery 721 devoted to Purvis, another to Peter Max, another to Ali, another to Elvis, and so on. He also anticipates resuming his tradition of inviting groups of schoolkids in to look at and hear about his collections. He cherishes the hundreds of cards and letters previous pint-sized visitors have sent him after such field trips.

Even Purvis himself is not immune to the charms of this one-of-a-kind gallery. Across one image, in his inimitable scrawl, are the words I like coming here. I can't improve on that sentiment.

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Michael Mills