Snagging some folk art by Purvis Young
I had told myself that I would not buy any artwork that day, and I had remained firm until the auction house began selling works by African American folk artist Purvis Young.
I sat quietly as the auctioneer sold off piece after piece of Young’s painted-plywood abstract-style art. A huge rectangular “Untitled” painting was the first that piqued me, because the bids were so tepid that I wondered if I could get it for a bargain – even if it was too big (48” x 96”) for any room in my house. Then I wondered if I should buy it and then try to sell it.
Finally, mercifully, it sold for $1,700 to a woman who was buying up Young and just about everyone else.
The painting was part of an auction of works by self-taught artists from around the globe. Young’s pieces were from the Grumbacher-Viener collection and had been shown at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading, PA, in 2011 as part of a traveling exhibit. All of the artists represented in the auction were not African Americans. I recognized the names of a few – Thornton Dial, Mose Tolliver, Bessie Harvey and Jimmie Lee Sudduth – and was introduced to others – Lorenzo Scott and Arbon Lane.
I don’t own any folk art paintings by named artists, but I do have some works I’ve picked up at auction that would be considered folk or outsider art, terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. It’s described as art made outside what is considered the mainstream.
Folk artists don’t normally spend their time in art school but in the school of life – most of it lived in Southern places like Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana. Their canvases were cardboard and wood, tin and quilts, and all kinds of found objects. They were born of talent and taught themselves, and the inspiration for their works came from an eclectic fountain – their spirituality and faith, their visions, their surroundings, their culture.
For years, folk art had been dismissed by the mainstream art community, but today it is recognized as a genre of its own. The American Folk Art Museum mounted an exhibit in 2005 of works by self-taught African American artists in its collection. Among them were Sister Gertrude Morgan, who painted from the spirit that moved her, and Clementine Hunter, who was born in the 1880s and painted plantation life and its aftermath.
Among the works in that exhibit were a sketchbook/scrapbook and large canvas of an assemblage of people by Young.
Purvis Young was born in 1943 in the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami, was encouraged to draw by an uncle but apparently soon tired of it. As a teenager he spent a few years in prison where he rekindled that earlier stab at painting and drawing. He never went to art school but learned from some of the masters through art books. After prison, during his forays around the city of his birth, he painted small drawings that he assembled in a scrapbook of sorts.
He moved to the Overtown section of Miami and began painting on plywood boards – covering the themes of war and poverty – that he attached to abandoned storefronts in an area called Good Bread Alley. Soon, he was selling the panels to tourists for $20 a pop.
His fortunes changed when the head of the Miami Museum of Art became his patron, and provided him with supplies and contacts. Through the years, Young did not tend to his finances very well and became embroiled in a lawsuit with his manager. Suffering from diabetes and other ailments, he died at age 67 in 2010.
His works are now in major museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the High Museum in Atlanta. Morehouse College has a collection of 109 of his paintings.
In a 1990s interview mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times, he said of his artwork:
“It was mostly white people interested. Some people would say stuff, say I looked like Gauguin, all different artists they say I looked like. A lot of black people seen them, but they didn’t say much to me about them. Some of them said I was mad, some cursed me out, some liked it, some of them admired me, some didn’t. A friend of mine – he’s passed away now – say to me, ‘I look at your paintings but I don’t see nothing. But every time I turn around you’re in the newspaper.'”
Young’s art materials were as much from the streets as the subjects of his paintings. He lived and worked in the Overtown, producing artwork that seemed more abstract than literal, his figures muddled but expressive and his style easily recognizable. Several of the works at the auction had his trademark horses or groups of people.
At the auction, after I had dodged the large Young piece, I settled back, proud of myself. But soon the bidding went crazy – crazy in the sense that his works were going for too little a price for me not to engage. So I got out of my seat and went back to the wall where his paintings had been hung and scoped out several I could live with.
The first was labeled “Untitled (Eyes of the Establishment),” circa 1980s, with blue and yellow circles that resembled balloons (or eyes). It wasn’t very striking to me, but I wasn’t about to let someone else have it at such a ridiculously low price. So I went back and forth with another bidder, and was about to give up when she backed down.
The next one was “Untitled (Freedom Horses),” in which you could see the curved outlines of bodies moving (there was a horse in the painting but the other bodies resembled the figures of people featured in his other paintings). The price was so low, it was if the auction house was giving it away. No way, I thought, as I dipped my toe in the bidding and won it.
I walked away with both works for what I thought were good prices – even though I had come to the auction to buy nothing.
I’d had a similar experience a couple years ago when I went to an auction to buy a dance composition lithograph by African American artist Eldzier Cortor. I bought it and was just hanging around when a similar print was offered. The price was so low that I decided that no one but me would walk away with it. And so I did, at a price that showed why I buy at auction and nowhere else.
The prices I paid were among the lowest for Young’s works at this auction. Some prices: $42,500 for “Untitled (Leader of the Peoples),” house paint on wood from 1991; a 1980s “Untitled” that had been included in a documentary about the artist, $11,000, and “Untitled (Angel),” one of the Good Bread Alley panels, $4,750.
At the auction, a sculptural piece that did not engage me was a scary-looking “Power Figure Doll” by artist Nellie Mae Rowe, among whose specialties were dolls.
This one was pudgy and homely, with a look only a mother could love. At least two people fancied her, though: The bidding went tit-for-tat before ending at $1,500.
The bidding over, the auctioneer finally glanced up at the doll on a wall screen. “That’s a beauty,” he joked.