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Over the years that generosity has been as remarkable as his abundant output. And just as legendary are the stories of art dealers and collectors pulling up their cars (or vans) to the artist's studio and loading up with paintings. "People used to come and take 20 or 30 paintings and give him 50 bucks for all of them," says Young's venerable friend Silo Crespo, a retired furniture restorer and Santeria priest who provided housing for Young and loosely served as his manager in the Seventies and Eighties. "He was robbed."
Young's large, more detailed paintings now routinely sell for between $10,000 and $15,000, sometimes more. The artist himself, however, has never received anything close to those prices for his work. Those types of transactions take place only between dealers and collectors.
In Miami and beyond, gallery owners have had success positioning Young as a popular artist of the "outsider" school, a market that has grown dramatically over the past decade, even while the rest of the art world has been in a slump. Today competition among dealers to represent such artists can be fierce. Like Young, the most acclaimed American outsider artists are from the South, have little or no formal art training, and are often poor and black. Perceived as primitive and childlike, these artists, also known by the gentler term, "self-taught," are eccentric by definition. They can be illiterate, indigent, elderly, incarcerated, or clinically insane; the artists' life stories are often selling points every bit as important as the artworks themselves.
"Purvis is the aborigine of the ghetto," proclaims Larry Clemons, who owns Gallery 721, a Fort Lauderdale shop specializing in Peter Max prints and works by apocalyptic Pop art hawker Rev. Howard Finster. The dealer first approached Young one day in 1995 when the artist was sitting on an Overtown street corner painting scenes of the neighborhood. Clemons says he kept returning until Young let him into his studio.
Later he helped place Young in "Souls Grown Deep," an extensive show that opened in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Clemons also is assisting Atlanta dealer Bill Arnett with the publication of a three-volume catalogue that will include 60 pages on Young.
The Fort Lauderdale dealer considers himself an authority on Young's work. In his small, cheery gallery, he eagerly holds forth on black history and the blues, reads aloud from outsider exhibition catalogues, tells stories about Young in an exaggerated imitation of the artist's Old Florida accent, and authoritatively interprets various Young paintings displayed in the gallery.
"Purvis likes to paint trucks because they bring jobs to Overtown," Clemons says confidently, pointing to a small painting of a rig, which the dealer describes as a symbol of the financial struggle of the black man against the white establishment. (When asked later about the meaning of a similar painting, Young answers simply: "I like trucks.")
Clemons took the artist to Atlanta by train for the "Souls Grown Deep" exhibit, his first trip outside Overtown. Since then Young has made several escorted visits to cities in the United States where his work has been shown. Last spring an art dealer from Tennessee took Young to the Outsider Art Fair in New York, a move that drew criticism from gallery owners at the event.
"[Young] shouldn't have been there," scolds Miami art dealer Joy Moos, whose exclusive contract with Young in the early Nineties ended in litigation. "His social intercourse lasts about twenty minutes. He was sitting there in the booth drawing in a book. Everybody was talking about it."
Moos and others charge that having Young make public appearances where his work is exhibited is akin to putting the artist himself on display. Larry Clemons counters that those critics just want to keep Young in the ghetto. "People take advantage of the uneducated African-American individual, and then when people like myself try to boost their prices and get them more notoriety, they get mad at me," complains the gallery owner, a white Kentucky native. "They say, 'What do you mean you're taking him to Atlanta? Do you think it's good to take him out of his environment?' I'm like, 'Duh. Why don't you move to Overtown and never come out?' Do I think it's good? I think it's necessary." Clemons adds that Young was reluctant to travel to Atlanta until he offered him money to go on the trip.
Clemons maintains that his relationship with Young is not profitable, and that his real interest is "Purvis Young, the man." He invites schoolchildren to the gallery to learn about the artist's work, and helped Young secure a $5000 commission to paint a mural for the House of Blues nightclub in Orlando, from which he claims to have received no commission percentage. Clemons says he has taken Young, a diabetic, to a doctor, and encouraged the artist's girlfriend to stop serving him greasy foods. But when asked what kind of financial agreement he has with the artist, the dealer dodges the question.
"If Purvis ever needs money, he can call me," Clemons says vaguely. When asked if he gives Young 50 percent of the proceeds from sales of paintings (standard practice between dealers and artists), he sounds defensive. "I paid his electric bills until last month. For the past five years he's known he can call me and say, 'I could use some dead presidents,' or 'I'm a little short,' and I'd go down and give him money and he'd give me some work. He knows and I know that I don't need another Purvis Young painting."