Over the course of his long career and particularly in his renowned public works, Purvis Young created an expressive record of life in the Miami neighborhood of Overtown. Young’s gestural, figurative style of painting and drawing in ink appeared on diverse found materials—cardboard, discarded doors, orange crates, telephone bills, printed book pages, and manila folders, among many others. These works’ writhing calligraphic lines and frenzied bursts of color depict crowds of people and recurring figures and motifs that include angels and ancestors, refugees and prisoners, pregnant women and protestors, and soldiers and workers. These subjects draw from Young’s immediate environment and from the aspirations and everyday life of people in Overtown, the historically Black neighborhood devastated in the 1960s by the construction of Miami’s major highways.
Man with the eye features a faceless man standing atop a large blue eye. In Young’s works the eye symbolizes the control and authority of an all-seeing establishment. The figure’s arms lift toward the sky, red chains dangling loosely from them in a gesture of victory. Triumphant and freed from his constraints, the figure prevails over its oppressor.
On the verso, an untitled drawing depicts twelve men stand on large green and blue eyes. Clad in orange and purple, their heads are framed by green halos. A thirteenth man, clad in red, appears on the right margin of the drawing with his arms raised. He is an outsider to the group, yet seems to dominate the scene through the powerful red hue. This could be Young’s interpretation of stories of Jesus and the twelve apostles from the New Testament, translated into his vernacular aesthetic. The artist held spiritual and religious figures in high regard and felt connected to the idea of seeking freedom through religious practice and beliefs.
The works of Purvis Young (b. 1943, Miami; d. 2010, Miami) are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, among others. His work has recently been featured in major solo exhibitions at the Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2018–19), and Palazzo Mora, Venice (2019), as well as in group exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.