Even a couple of years ago, when he was laid up in a hospital bed with a kidney ailment, Purvis Young never quit railing against the injustices that fueled his work. In the summer of 2008, Miami's best-known artist told New Times that the presidential primaries were providing fertile fodder for a new body of work. "Sitting in the hospital bed watching all the news about the upcoming election has been keeping me up-to-date as these political events unfold -- all the wiles and doublespeak and backstabbing is going to inform my work when I am back painting," Young declared.
Born and raised in Overtown, Purvis Young began painting after serving a three-year prison sentence for burglary in his early 20s. He soon became known for raw, evocative scenes of angels, Zulu warriors, railroad tracks, and wild horses depicted on termite-riddled wood, rotting doors, scraps of metal, and other urban detritus. This past April, Young, who was an urban storyteller without peer, died at age 67, and now he's the subject of a modest retrospective at the Miami Art Museum.
"We had originally scheduled a small Robert Rauschenberg show in our Focus Gallery for this period but have postponed that until November," says Peter Boswell, MAM's senior curator and organizer of the Young exhibit. "After Purvis passed recently we decided to honor him with a tribute exhibit featuring 18 of his works from our collection."
"His catalogue of symbols was astounding," Boswell continues. "What may have begun as scenes of protest against social injustice in the '60s and '70s with crowds of people with their arms raised, now actually appear celebratory. Even his pictures of pregnant women dealing with teen pregnancy issues can be seen as representing fecundity, new generations, and the cycles of life. Purvis was a truly remarkable artist and human being."
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Boswell calls Purvis "the best artist Miami has produced," also mentioning Jose Bedia and maybe Hernan Bas now among his peers. "I think Purvis is an underrated artist," Boswell observes. "He was well known in Miami and much beloved but perhaps not as respected by the art establishment as he should have been."
The curator blames the controversies surrounding Young's past handlers, many of whom took advantage of and even exploited him for financial gain. "Another problem was that Purvis was an extremely prolific talent who never stopped producing work even when he was ill," Boswell says. "You can still purchase a good Purvis piece for $200 dollars."
Purvis Young. Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami. The exhibition runs until November 7. The museum is open 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and noon till 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs $8 for adults and $4 for seniors. It's free for MAM members, students, and children 12 and younger. Call 305-375-3000 or visit miamiartmuseum.org.