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.
In many of his works, Young gives voice to overlooked narratives of Black American soldiers and their contributions to American history. Collaged over a ripped-out page of a book featuring etchings from eighteenth-century France, the drawing War stages a battle scene. A soldier in green uniform stands in the way of a tank moving toward him, an armed fort and explosions in the distance. Young has written the words “Friend at War” across the top of the image. Likely referencing the Vietnam War, this drawing from 1969 seems to direct attention to the treatment of Black soldiers who were fighting for the United States in Vietnam while facing discrimination at home. He doing it., the drawing on the reverse, pictures a completely different scene. In a swirl of arms and two pairs of legs, two people appear to be having intercourse. The dynamic lines drawn with pen around the figures resonate with the architectural and circular shapes of the historical etching the drawing is pasted onto.
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.