Artist: Purvis Young (America, 1943-2010)
Title: Untitled (Angel, Boats and Horse)
Medium: Painting on found board
Dimensions: 69 x 38 x 3.5 inches
Credit Line: Gift of Selig and Angela Sacks, 2014.6.1
The first thing I noticed about Purvis Young’s Untitled (Angel, Boats, and Horses) (ca. 1988) was that it was huge. Even propped up against the dolly, used to move the artwork, the painting dominated the small white room. Made of two pieces of plywood nailed together, the artwork is almost six feet tall, just over three feet wide, and three-and-a-half inches thick. Young collected this found material from his neighborhood of Overtown, Florida; his neighborhood was an unending source of inspiration for his paintings. Standing in front of this painting, I thought about him lugging these pieces of plywood through Overtown. Strangers must have wondered: what does he want with all that junk?
He wanted to make art. Young painted the stories of his neighborhood and ancestors on a range of discarded items, like boards, books, and car seats. These materials were strewn across Overtown, a reflection of the neighborhood’s rapid change over the past several decades. During the height of the Jim Crow era, Overtown was known by white people as “Colored Town.” By contrast, the African American community proudly referred to this neighborhood as the “Harlem of the South.” Jazz and blues icons, like Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, stayed in Overtown because they could not stay in Miami’s segregated hotels.
However, from the 1940s to the 1960s, racially discriminatory practices damaged this lively community. The building of interstate highways through Overtown’s downtown displaced thousands of African Americans and immigrants. Institutionalized racism squeezed the community even further. Redlining, banks’ refusing to extend loans or credit to people in neighborhoods of certain racial and ethnic groups, left members of Overtown without equal access to financial resources.
Young’s materials relate to the history of Overtown, and they also invite viewers to pay special attention to the touch and feel of these artworks. Without touching it, we can imagine the splinters that may get stuck in our hand if we reach out to touch the edge of the board.
After getting his materials to his studio, Young would then paint personal and historical narratives on these objects. Across his artworks, he used the same symbols repeatedly. For example, he explained that horses represent freedom and pregnant women embody hope for the future.
In addition, Young drew artistic inspiration from jazz and blues musicians. He once equated painting to music, saying that one day he wanted to paint his own symphony. With the improvisational skill of a jazz trumpet player, Young covered his works with quick brushstrokes and smooth swirls of paint. In Untitled (Angel, Boats, and Horses), we can see Young’s rapid strokes of paint. The uneven spread of paint in the angel’s tears are an imprint of his quick motions. Like a musician, Young also had strong technical skills. His artworks reflect his understanding of composition and color. He developed these technical skills through his seemingly never-ending study. He spent hours poring over art historical textbooks in the library, listening to local radio, and watching documentary programs.
Through epic compositions like Untitled (Angel, Boats, and Horses), Young ennobled moments across history. Below the crying angel, two boats appear small amongst the tumultuous sea, fading paint, and energetic brushstrokes. Caught in this precarious journey, the people in these boats represent immigrants across history. Young connected his grandmother’s story of immigration to contemporary experiences. He saw that just like his grandmother, who traveled by boat from the British Caribbean, modern day refugees journeyed by boat from Haiti and Cuba to America. He also connected these experiences to the “Black Atlantic”—the forced removal and enslavement of Africans by Europeans. In the bottom half of the painting, Young included wild horses, his symbol for freedom. Paired with the tumultuous scene above, I think these horses represent Young’s wish of freedom for these immigrants.
I am always struck by Young’s ability to pair emotion with social concerns. This heart-wrenching composition carries a political weight. Young was troubled by the racial politics of immigration. His grandmother came from “one of them big British islands” when “the white man didn’t want black folks, most likely, coming to America.” Poignantly, Young always wondered: “Would the white man get concerned about white folks coming to America? Always puzzled me.”
And now, after Young’s passing in 2013, we are left to puzzle over his work. Young’s oeuvre offers an important reflection on the anxieties of his time. Untitled (Angel, Boats, and Horses) is a striking example of such reflections. The physical object, something from his neighborhood, grounds the work in the history of Overtown. The narrative reminds us of the tender and troubled history of immigration. Recalling Young’s description of his ability to “look life right straight in its face,” this work invites the viewer to do the same.
– Julia Poppy, Curatorial Assistant (WCAS – Art History ’17). and curator of the Fall 2017 Block Museum exhibition “Looking Life Right Straight in the Face: The Art of Purvis Young.”
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