MIAMI — Art patronage tends to be an affair over time: a collector will acquire an artist’s work slowly, methodically, riding out the natural waves of creativity and invention while nurturing a deep, drawn-out appreciation for the artist’s worldview. Flying in the face of conventions, Don and Mera Rubell visited the studio of Miami-born painter Purvis Young one afternoon in 1999, shortly after discovering his work at the home of friends, and sketched out a tentative plan to purchase its entire contents in only a matter of hours. Located in the Wynwood neighborhood, now a trendy arts district and home to the Rubells’ 40,000-square-foot museum for the last two decades, the crowded warehouse where Young lived and worked brimmed with more than 3,000 paintings on slabs of wood, scraps of cardboard, unhinged doors, yellowed ledger books, and any other material the artist could repurpose from his urban bicycle trips. Created with industrial or house paint, or acrylics if he could get his hands on them, Young’s works tell the stories of individuals and communities, of dreams and disillusionment, and of the abysses between life, death, and eternity. His distinctive inky figures, charging forth in a phalanx, walk solemnly in procession. Marching in protest or alone in unbounded expanses of color, they trace past histories of oppression that flow into the present.
The Rubells’ visit was timely: Young feared eviction from his building as the neighborhood rapidly gentrified, and the couple’s regular payments allowed him to settle elsewhere and provided assurance that his life’s work would be well cared for. That the Rubells instantly became patrons of Young may be a testament to their unflinching, instinct-driven collecting, but it also speaks to the emotional potency of Young’s work. There is perhaps no better way to begin grasping Young’s solo exhibition at the Rubell Family Collection (RFC) in Miami than to consider this serendipitous convergence of two rare events: a peculiarly forthcoming pair of collectors and an unusually good artist.
Curated by RFC’s longtime director Juan Roselione-Valadez, who was part of the team initially tasked with accessioning the acquisition, Purvis Young is the museum’s largest presentation of a single artist to date, with more than 100 works (all untitled and dated circa 1980–1999) grouped neatly into 14 categories that correspond with the various leitmotifs of Young’s oeuvre. These themes include the subjects and symbols most commonly associated with the artist — horses, faces, and angels, for instance — and less explored subjects, such as eyes, insects, and planets. As Valadez laments in the exhibition catalogue’s introduction, such thoughtful presentations of the artist’s work are few and far between, with paintings typically installed in bulky masses where individual works are difficult to differentiate. If the Rubells initially took in an unwieldy stockpile of artworks, the educated taxonomy of the current survey is defined by rhyme and reason, leveraging a thematic approach to distill the biographical and stylistic evolutions of Young’s fascinating life and career.
Born in 1943 in Miami’s Liberty City, Young’s upbringing straddled segregation and integration and coincided with a wave of vicissitudes to the historically black neighborhood. As its population dispersed, white property owners bought up land only to neglect the buildings and their mostly African American tenants. Slumlording led to squalor, squalor to poverty. In the 1960s, Young was arrested for burglary and served a three-year sentence at North Florida’s Raiford State Penitentiary, where he found consolation and purpose in drawing, an activity he had pursued in childhood. Upon his release, he settled in Overtown, another vulnerable neighborhood located just below Wynwood. Inspired by works such as the Wall of Respect in Chicago and the union of public art and activism that emerged with the Black Arts Movement, riled by the torrent of global atrocities streaming from his television set and the injustices in his own turbulent backyard, he began to paint.
Young felt a responsibility to portray those whose fortunes were unfairly determined by class, race, and gender. Among his most moving subjects are pregnant women, who he viewed as paradoxical: harbingers of hope, they also bear the figurative brunt of society’s ills. Young’s delight at capturing the human form is palpable in these works. The women’s thin, mannered frames, bulging with exaggerated bellies and bloated breasts, stand upright in a feat of strength. The destructive effects of drugs, ubiquitous in Young’s community, constituted another concern. A swarm of undulating angels hovers above a mountain of syringes in an expressionistic composition of deep reds and cornfield yellows. Are they an apparition after death, or guardians of the city streets? In Young’s compositions, people live at the cusp of possibility, birth and loss in the hands of the same uncertain destiny. His grandmother had immigrated to Miami from the Bahamas, and boat people appear frequently in his paintings, tiny specks in horizonless oceans awaiting something better.
Young frequently cross-references motifs in his paintings. His multi-panel format and disregard for illusionistic space — his protagonists are always foregrounded in abstractions — allow for endless juxtapositions: motherhood and addiction, saints and slaves, needles and halos. Warring horsemen wielding spears float in color-scapes dappled with stars and planets. Under the grouping titled “Prisoners,” sallow faces peer at us from behind bars made out of found wooden beams or bits of cord and rope ingeniously nailed to the painted panel, while throngs of rioting figures hoist their squiggly arms in the air. The work is a fitting allegory for the racial profiling and mass incarceration that continue to impact Black communities in American society.
From the stacks of his local public libraries, Young pulled illustrated catalogues filled with van Gogh’s sunflowers and Old Master paintings. References to art history abound in his iconography, yet dwelling on his equestrian figures and perfectly spherical nimbuses risks eclipsing one of his most formidable accomplishments — the development of a truly unique, idiosyncratic vocabulary of symbols, many of which are not immediately readable. The RFC exhibition brings our attention to these ciphers. A small, intimate gallery hosts an enigmatic series of lush paintings featuring teardrop shapes punctuated with clear blue or deep green centers. These peculiar forms thin out at the corners and fatten in the middle, resembling slow-crawling mollusks that Young’s spindly figures mount like cowboys. They are not creatures, we learn from the wall label, but the ominous eyes of the oppressive white man. With their freewheeling brushstrokes and decadent patches of bright pigment, such as crushed orange and magenta, they recall the Fauvist lineage frequently invoked in conversations about Young’s work. But unlike those dogmatic colorists, Young did not have an apparent theoretical agenda for his palette (as he had a social one for his symbology). “I didn’t want to be nowhere near a painter,” he said cryptically in a 2005 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, five years before his death. “I just paint to paint.”
The RFC is a far different environment from the world these works inhabited during most of Young’s lifetime. A fixture of his community, he was known for tacking painted panels to walls or tree trunks, merging his work seamlessly into the urban landscape as in his beloved murals of Goodbread Alley in Overtown, completed in the early 1970s. He had an alchemical ability to transform the unwanted parts of objects — the sidings of buildings, for instance, or books salvaged from the library’s pulp pile — into stages for his narratives of the everyday. His paintings also led more private lives, finding homes with friends, family members, and acquaintances who were lucky enough to be gifted works (and swipers who simply stole them). In this merited exhibition, they have found a space for contemplation.
Purvis Young continues at the Rubell Family Collection (95 NW 29th Street, Miami) through June 29.