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October 27, 2006
Sun Sentinel Review
Found objects, found himself
Purvis Young retrospective shows a life of art made in protest and passion.

By Emma Trelles
Arts Writes for the Sun-Sentinel

With sorrow pouring from its center and a dark and steady gaze, Tearing Eye begins the trip into the exhibit "Purvis Young: Paintings From the Street." It's one of many wise curatorial choices made in this stunning, 30-year retrospective at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The show mounts paintings alongside artist-made books, watercolors and even a four-door Datsun, all touched by the brush of the prolific Purvis Young. As diverse as the media and cobbled canvases are, all convey the narratives culled from a man's life, a local culture, the rise of downtown Miami and the struggles and spirit of nearby Overtown.

Painted in 1974 over a slab of rough-surfaced Masonite, the somber eye bears witness to these worlds, along with everything else created by the self-taught painter, a visual griot documenting what he's seen and where he's lived for most of his 63 years. Young's canvases comprise found paper, junk wood, broke-down dressers and doors, and any other flat surface he can paint on. And paint he does, constantly, compulsively, with a purpose he envisions as the mission of a warrior or an angel, to tell his tales and make, as he puts it, a "peace in the world."

"It all comes from personal experience and his outlook on life," explains the museum's senior curator, Wendy Blazier. "Visually, it's raw and it's real, especially now, in contrast with so much contemporary work in the last 20 years that's more minimalist and conceptualist.

"Purvis lives in one of the poorest communities in the country. This work has a real physicality to it. So much of it is made from discards gathered from the street. It all has a story."

Rough beginnings

Here is Young's story, or at least a bit from the early chapters: Born in 1943 in Liberty City to a Bahamian mother who urged him to draw. Dropped out of high school at 16 and arrested two years later for breaking and entering. Incarcerated in Florida's Raiford State Prison. Served four years but began drawing again in jail.

Once released, he frequented the public library, where he learned about the budding mural movement of the late '60s, whole blocks and buildings painted by Latino and black artists eager to record their own histories in full-throttle color.

Soon afterward, using house paint and plywood, Young crafted his first public construct: hundreds of singular works nailed to the abandoned buildings that once framed Fourteenth Street in Overtown. Known as the Goodbread Alley project, after the fine-smelling johnny-cake and cornbread then made in bakeries and homes along the street, Young's paintings launched a lifetime of art made in protest, in passion, in the wide tide of his own invention.

Today his work fills the pages of several books devoted to self-taught artistry, as well as the walls of galleries and museums across the country and abroad. Those seeking a similar, figure-filled thrill for free need only visit Miami's Northside Metrorail station or the outer walls of the Culmer/Overtown Library.

Yet these are but facts, and to wholly understand them, to enter Young's life, one must view his work and learn its secret language. It's an alphabet drawn from Overtown's residents, its streets and the artist's wild, god-flecked vision.

True-to-life characters

"My eyes is like a camera, a picture camera, and it take the slow motion of life," Young says to the film crew who shot Purvis of Overtown, an hour-long documentary released this year that tracks the painter's evolution along with the fall of his neighborhood. "I don't want to go that fast ... the peoples, the buildings. These characters come alive, you know?"

Assembled by chronology, the works at the museum trace how Young amassed his cast over the course of years, one image at a time. Bloody Angel, Jesus and Soul Sister, all painted in the early to mid-'70s, mark Young's affinity for deifying what he deems good. The requisite golden nimbus continues to circle the heads of later subjects, such as Thelonious Monk, and the grand and bulbous heads of angels wedged between building-thick streets.

Young portrays his common man with brash, black figures and squiggled arms raised in supplication or joy. His untamed and often ghostly horses stand free from the burdens of poverty, and his pregnant women glow or are crushed by addiction. Some of the paintings photograph a city in the making, such as Arena (c. 1989) or the lusciously colored Metrorail (c. 1984), burnished by the corals of South Florida's western sky at dusk, and the shadow of the transit system rising before it.

Other works unveil Young's own biography. There are pieces gathered from the mid-'90s painted on thinner planks and framed with carpet instead of plywood, such as the crimson-fringed Sage: Top of the World and Mule with Bag O' Gold. Young has diabetes and currently awaits a kidney transplant. While he feels fitter since he started dialysis, he is still unable to shoulder the heavier materials he used in younger years, such as the slab of Dade County pine found in My Peoples in the Streets (c. 1988).

Likewise his inclusion of titan-sized insects in two paintings from the same era reflects the anxiety he felt when his studio was infested with termites. Once exterminated, the pests also disappeared from his canvases. And his recent switch to water-based media such as acrylics or markers came after a doctor warned him that paint fumes could damage his eyes.

"It's autobiographical. It's historical; it's about politics," notes curator Blazier. "It's the best kind of art."

A populist painter

With an artist as prolific as Young there's always the chance of throwing everything and anything into an exhibit; it seems any scrap of paper the artist has ever wiped his brush upon is secured for sale on eBay or at high-end vintage stores. The man is omnipresent, much to the chagrin of many dealers who loop exclusiveness with value.

But Young is a populist painter, a man of the people, and the museum and its curators understand this. They have smartly sidestepped a greedier form of display for a careful assemblage. Each work builds upon the next, and perhaps nowhere is this more striking than the floor-to-ceiling suite of paintings Blazier installed on one long wall of the gallery.

It is, in part, a paean to the now long-gone Goodbread Alley project, but it is also a shrine to, and by, Purvis Young, powerfully cluttered with his signature angels, singing in choirs, cornered by construction, gagged. Hundreds of his primitive, rhythmic figures crowd inner-city avenues, bestriding horses or burying the dead. Ships drift along horizons, trains and trucks ferry wares along stripped down streets. It is the living history of one man, and of many.


What: "Purvis Young: Paintings From the Street"

Where: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton

When: Through Nov. 26; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Admission: $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for students

Events: Purvis of Overtown screens at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Wolgin Auditorium (free with paid museum admission; tickets issued one hour prior on a first-come basis)

Contact: 561-392-2500 or

Emma Trelles can be reached at 954-356-4689 or


News Archive
September 14, 2018
With His Work Heading to Next Year’s Venice Biennale, the Late Artist Purvis Young Transcends the ‘Outsider’ Label
July 09, 2010
December 01, 2009
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL
October 24, 2009
Museum of Fine Arts
December 09, 2008
Officials honor Overtown art icon Purvis Young
September 09, 2008
BAC to Restore Purvis Young Mural
August 28, 2008
Rubell Family Collection Grants Purvis Young Collection to Morehouse College (Permanent Exhibition)
August 27, 2008
Purvis Young Paintings Donated to Morehouse
The Miami Herald
August 14, 2008
Morehouse fully embraces works by Purvis Young
By Catherine Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
May 01, 2008
White Hot Magazine
Purvis Young at The Gallery Bar NYC
by Afrika Brown

May 01, 2008
Purvis Young: Protest by Joel Withrow
March 08, 2008
Biscayne Times: Artistic Genius Meets Artful Dodger
March 22, 2007
Daily Business Review article
by Julie Kay

November 26, 2006
New York Times Article
Art? In This Neighborhood?
November 13, 2006
Biscayne Boulevard Times Review
Purvis Young: Paintings from the Street
Picasso of the Ghetto Paints Life in Overtown
October 08, 2006
Palm Beach Post Review
Street Smart: Purvis Young
October 01, 2006

September 21, 2006
formatting - Press Release:
Boca Raton Museum of Art Announces Fall Exhibitions
September 05, 2006
Ocean Drive, September '06 issue
Essentials du Moment
September 05, 2006
November 06, 2005
Tampa Museum of Art Receives Purvis Young Paintings
June 01, 2005
Savannah NOW, June 1, 2005, review
May 29, 2005
Everything's a canvas for self-taught artist
April 20, 2005
A Fine Dividing Line: Purvis Young & Manuel Diaz@the Hurn Museum
April 20, 2005
Connect Savannah, April 20, 2005, review by Bertha Husband
March 14, 2003
Forever Young: a self-taught colorist shows expressionistic energy
January 01, 2003
Art in America, January 2003, review by Paula Harper
August 01, 2001
Review by Ann Klefstad
July 01, 2000
American Art: Smithsonian American Art Museum
review by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan
June 01, 2000
Volvo Advertisment featuring mural by Purvis Young
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For more information about Purvis Young, please visit

Representing paintings, drawings and sculpture by the late Urban Expressionist artist Purvis Young.

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