Nothing But an Artist

For so many years, people have been calling me all different kinds of names to describe me as an artist: outsider, black artist, ghetto artist, the Picasso of the Ghetto," Purvis Young said at a public appearance in August. "I just want to be called an artist. That's all I've been doing all my life is painting."

That, in a nutshell, is Purvis Young, a paradoxical combination of modesty and ego. He might have added "folk artist" and "self-taught artist" to the list of labels.

Purvis, as just about everybody seems to refer to him, is currently the subject of both a major career retrospective at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, "Purvis Young: Paintings From the Street," and a documentary feature, Purvis of Overtown, which will screen in early November as part of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. It's a happy coincidence, although I'm not sure whether it's better to see the exhibition first and then the film or vice versa. I did the former and found it both gratifying and illuminating.

When Purvis first put pen to paper, then paint to whatever surface was available, more than 40 years ago, no one — least of all Purvis himself — could have foreseen that the path he had embarked on would lead him to become one of the most prolific and widely collected artists of the late 20th Century. For one thing, he was a teenager serving time in Raiford State Prison when the art bug bit him. Details of the incarceration differ: The documentary suggests he was jailed at around 16 for three years for breaking and entering; an essay in the exhibition catalog by Paula Harper, a professor of modern art history and criticism at the University of Miami, indicates that Purvis was 18 and upgrades the charge to four years for robbery.

The common denominator is that Purvis, who as a child was encouraged to draw by his Bahamian mother, took up drawing again during his time in the big house. Soon after, at a local public library, "he discovered 'guys painting their feelings,' and studied his favorites, Rembrandt, El Greco, Daumier, van Gogh," as Harper recounts. (Rubens is another favorite; Purvis refers to him as Ruby.)

But as the title of the Boca Museum show indicates, Purvis found his greatest inspiration on the street. Born in the Liberty City area of Miami in 1943, Purvis has spent the bulk of his life on the often-turbulent streets of the city's Overtown neighborhood, where he is both well-known and beloved. The film shows him riding his bicycle throughout the area, absorbing the local color that will make its way into his art.

The Overtown of Purvis' youth was a far cry from what it is today. As the movie makes vividly clear with archival footage, it was once a vibrant community where whites mingled freely with blacks, where hip jazz clubs attracted performers like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. That all began to change in the 1950s, when I-395 cut a huge, destructive swath through Overtown, displacing thousands of people when their homes fell to the wrecking ball. The deterioration was magnified by the civil rights and antiwar protests of the '60s and, later, by drugs, especially crack, and violent crime. One section of town was nicknamed Bucket of Blood.

Purvis absorbed all these things and channeled them into his art, using house paint applied to scraps of wood, fragments of discarded furniture, and other found objects. His frames are similarly fashioned from such items. Then, as now, his often crudely executed paintings and drawings are enormously potent evocations of a man-made hell on Earth. Although he dropped out of school in his midteens, he continued his education by visiting libraries and watching and listening to public television and radio. And even when his art led to fame and fortune, he remained a street artist by choice.

In 1974, Purvis began nailing his paintings to the walls of abandoned buildings in Goodbread Alley, a stretch of 14th Avenue in Overtown named for a bakery that spilled forth its tantalizing aromas before it was demolished to make way for I-395. Purvis knew about Chicago's Wall of Respect, and in effect it inspired him to become a muralist of sorts, blanketing the walls with paintings that flowed together in a big, messy, sprawling narrative chronicling the artist's world.

The first time I saw Purvis Young's work in a museum setting was at the Rubell Family Collection in the Wynwood district of Miami, where the walls (and, as I recall, even the ceiling) of a small gallery were completely covered with his paintings. It was a grand attempt to re-create the look and feel of Purvis' Goodbread Alley wall.

Not surprisingly, Mera and Donald Rubell had been so overwhelmed when they visited the artist's warehouse gallery that they promptly purchased its entire contents — more than 5,000 paintings, some of which they have since donated to various museums. The Boca Museum is one beneficiary of the Rubells' enthusiasm: The current Purvis show includes ten paintings that will remain with the museum once the exhibition is over, and another two are on loan from their collection.

The show features more than a hundred works by Purvis, most of them from the 1980s and '90s, and one huge wall is devoted to an astonishing Goodbread Alley-like assemblage consisting of dozens of paintings. The exhibition was curated by art dealer Skot Foreman, who negotiated loans from more than 40 private collections and other sources. Foreman, who hails from South Florida and once had a gallery in Dania Beach, has long been a champion of Purvis; he loaned three paintings from his own collection, and the catalog includes his brief, heartfelt appreciation of the artist, which he opens by declaring, "Even today, there is something about a great Purvis Young painting that gets me in the gut."

Purvis is not without his critics, of course. Art dealers have complained that he's way too prolific, driving down the value of his work. Purvis' response is a shrug: "But it don't bother me." Even more pointedly, he says, in a statement posted at the beginning of the exhibition and included in the catalog, "Those people who say I paint too much don't say that birds fly too much, Shakespeare wrote too much, or opera singers sing too much."

Almost inevitably for an artist so productive — even Picasso cranked out lots of mediocre work — Purvis' output is variable. Harper's essay accurately pegs his overall style as "more or less naïve, expressionistic symbolism" and emphasizes his "development over time (not usually a characteristic of folk or outsider art)." Foreman has highlighted this development by loosely organizing the show chronologically. Even so, I much prefer Purvis' work from the 1960s and '70s that, despite its general flatness, seems to convey an emotional charge more directly. As powerful a work as Tent City Violence (c. 1986) is, it can't match the visceral violence of Riots of the MLK Assassination (1969), the exhibition's earliest piece.

What both exhibition and film clarify so fully is that Purvis appears to remain relatively unaffected by his success. His paintings can be found in private and major museum collections nationwide, and they now command prices into five figures instead of a few dollars. The artist himself, however, continues to live in Overtown and continues to tool around on his bicycle to soak up inspiration from the streets — a charmed if strange life.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Mills