Purvis Young

  • For four decades, self-taught artist Purvis Young, who died April 20 at 67, celebrated American life in his paintings, drawings and mixed-media assemblages. His artistic iconography--horses, pregnant women, trucks, basketball games, Haitian boat people and funerals--honestly documents contemporary African-American urban life in all its vibrancy, energy and action.

    After Young was released from prison in the 1960s, he started to merge the influences of old masters like Rembrandt, El Greco and van Gogh with the activities of contemporary art. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement's Wall of Respect in Chicago, he had the idea of creating his own mural in Goodbread Alley in his Miami neighborhood of Overtown. The street art alerted people to Young's artistic ambitions.

    Young was at ease in his studio too, producing large-scale paintings and countless sketchbooks. He would use a manila folder, plywood, furniture--whatever was at hand--as a surface to depict the people of Overtown, the events of our time and the rituals that bookend life. There is an electric cacophony to his work, which exudes a singular energy. Young's use of calligraphic line privileged spontaneity--whether he was working with a ball-point pen or house paint--and it was always confident, pulsing and lyrical.

    "Rembrandt walked among the peoples, and that's what I do," Young told Florida's Sun-Sentinel in 1993. And though Young walked mostly among the people in Overtown, his art hangs in museums across the country.

    Anderson is the director and curator of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum