Longform

From Outsider to Insider

Purvis Young's studio could not fail to make an impression on anyone the artist allowed to enter it. Until recently the vast, musty space was filled with thousands of his expressive paintings. As visitors blinked to adjust their eyes to the dimness, their feet searching for a place to step on the cluttered floor, an extraordinary craggy landscape emerged from the shadows within the warehouse. The paintings on plywood scraps and remnants of cargo crates and discarded furniture were stacked in seemingly haphazard piles next to mounds of dusty books, several paint-splattered television sets topped with towering stacks of video cassettes, and a herd of bicycles leaning against one of the walls. Warped library texts with drawings glued to their pages and small canvases, forgotten and curling in the stagnant air, were strewn here and there. In the six or so years Young had occupied this building on a lonely Overtown corner, he had been so prolific that the mushrooming heaps of paintings had grown until they were taking over the artist himself.

"All that wood caused problems," explains Young, tall and burly, dressed in blue work pants, a matching shirt, and surf sandals. Dried paint stains his hands and dots his short nappy hair. "I scrape my legs a few times. Then I worry about a fire or something. I tell the guys who I know that somebody was going to walk in here and make me an offer. I was looking for a ballplayer."

Relief came not from a major-leaguer, but from Don and Mera Rubell, big-league collectors in the field of contemporary art who relocated their accumulated works here from New York in December 1994. The Rubells have been acquiring contemporary art since the Seventies, and are known for investing in work by rising young artists.

In early March, after just one visit to Young's warehouse studio/home, the couple purchased every one of the thousands of paintings in sight. The Rubells will not know exactly how many works they bought until the collection is sorted and catalogued, but one of the employees who moved the pieces from Young's studio to the Rubell Family Collection exhibition space and storage facility at 95 NW 29th St, estimates there are 4000 to 5000 paintings in all, the majority of them large works on wood, measuring up to eight-by-four feet. They have been fumigated and are being stored in several freight containers on the Rubells' property.

Art dealer Tamara Hendershot and FIU professor and poet Jeffrey Knapp, a friend of Young, introduced the artist to the Rubells and acted as intermediaries in the deal. No one involved with the sale will disclose the artist's asking price (which the Rubells say they agreed to pay) for the work, but sources in the local art community, which has been abuzz with the news, have made some wildly varying guesses, anywhere from $60,000 to more than a million dollars. The money will be paid in installments, providing the 56-year-old painter with a stipend, possibly for the rest of his life. "I can travel," a contented Young says of the windfall. "If I die I can bury myself. I can start over again. Now I've got room to move around."

While the artist seems most pleased with the immediate results of the removal of his paintings from the studio and his newfound financial security, what's important for the Rubells is the long-term outcome of their impulsive decision to buy the work. Sorting through the paintings and evaluating the artistic significance of each will be an extensive and costly task for which the Rubells plan to enlist art professionals familiar with Young. They want to document the artist's oeuvre and exhibit it, and are contemplating buying another building in order to put it on permanent display, as well as showing it with the work of other artists in their collection. They stress that they will not resell the paintings, but ultimately plan to donate many of them to museums.

"The fantasy would be that all of our perceptions about this work are as clear as we think now," Mera Rubell says. "Which is maybe we really have a great American artist who's been working right inside this neighborhood. How beautiful would that be. That would be an incredible thing."

Although Purvis Young has yet to receive the kind of art-world sanctification Rubell cautiously anticipates, both the man and his work have been visible and enduring elements of Miami's visual landscape for some 30 years. Young has often painted outdoors in his Overtown neighborhood, and his bold renderings of writhing urban crowds, proud black angels, wild horses, pick-up basketball games, Haitian boat people, funeral processions, majestic pregnant women, riots, and war are as familiar to inner-city residents and passing drivers as they are to art mavens who frequent the local museums and galleries that have exhibited his work. Young's sublime scenes of bleak reality and enduring hope offer a gritty counterimage to the stereotypical promotional picture of Miami as a carefree tropical paradise.

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Judy Cantor