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.
Young often created images of friends, neighbors, musicians, and angels, depicting them with halos to symbolize good people and the possibility of goodness in a strife-riven world. Second Place features the portrait of a Black man framed by a crowd of people tinted in orange and yellow. At the top of the page, Young added the words “Second Place in the World,” possibly hinting to the social position of the figure at the center of the drawing.
On the verso, Man Advantage features a crowd of protesters and horses. The undated drawing might reference the unrest in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood in 1968, in particular the protests against the continued social, political, and economic discrimination enacted there. For Young, the horse is a symbol of freedom—and protesting a way to achieve this freedom. The artist’s imagery speaks to his concern for the contested condition of humanity and Black people’s struggle for liberation. In his works, the artist confronted this continued fight for fundamental change: “My feeling was the world might be better if I put up my protests. I figured the world might get better, it might not, but it was just something I had to be doing. . . . I’m a warrior . . . I think, like, I’m one of the figures in my art.”
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.