In December 2018, celebrities and collectors jetted into South Florida for Art Basel Miami Beach, the annual contemporary art fair. Hundreds of people in blazers and party dresses crowded into the Rubell Family Collection, a private museum, for the opening of an exhibit of work by the late Purvis Young. Visitors wound through the rooms filled with paintings and snapped selfies destined for Instagram. They jammed onto a back patio where pink lights illuminated the palm trees. A bank sponsored the cocktail bar.
Young had made thousands of paintings during his lifetime, and this midcareer selection of about 100 pieces — which was grouped by motif: “Warriors,” “Drugs,” “Holy Men and Angels,” and so on — took up the museum’s entire ground floor. Perhaps the most famous painter to ever come out of Florida, Young had depicted the struggles and joys of Miami’s poor black community and was branded an “outsider artist.” His work is in the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and two Smithsonian museums. Lenny Kravitz, David Byrne and Jane Fonda are all professed fans.
Eddie Mae Lovest, a petite 62-year-old in jeans and a tank top, slid through the crowd from painting to painting, pausing for a few seconds at each. Young’s works were among the first things that she noticed when she stepped off a Greyhound bus into downtown Miami in the early 1970s, a pregnant teenager fresh from the woods of Georgia. “It was me coming from a little old country town,” she had explained the day before the art show. “It was so many lights and so many people, and all these big buildings.” She thought it was crazy that someone had nailed hundreds of paintings all over abandoned buildings in Goodbread Alley, a desolate stretch of 14th Street where, decades earlier, johnny cakes were sold out of shotgun shacks. The paintings, on scraps of wood and broken doors, depicted funerals, wars, celebrations. They were full of stringy figures with extra-long bellies, long arms stretched up to the sky. “I was like, ‘Who the hell let these kids be drawing on their buildings?’ ” Lovest said. “Where I come from, you don’t draw on people’s stuff!”
Walking to her job at a downtown dry cleaner, Lovest would pass the Bahamian restaurant where Young sometimes helped the owner. The artist had a thick build, serious face and a wisp of a mustache. Soon, “we became the best of friends. For 37 long years … I took care of him, and he took care of me, from the time I met him until the time he died. Never was married. Never was girlfriend and boyfriend. Just the best friend I could have ever had.”
Young never had a wife or biological children. When he died in 2010, he named Lovest and 12 of her daughters and grandchildren as the main beneficiaries of his will. He left hardly any cash, but he did leave 1,884 artworks. Lovest assumed a sale would eventually be arranged and her family given its due. So she was surprised in 2018 to learn that a judge had let lawyers take all of the art to satisfy a half-million dollars in bills racked up on Young’s behalf. Her family hadn’t gotten a cent — or a single painting.
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Purvis Young grew up in Overtown, a historically black neighborhood in Miami once known as “the Harlem of the South.” The area was devastated when Interstate 95 was built right through it as part of urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and ’60s. Released from prison in 1964 after serving three years for breaking and entering, Young could be seen working near the highway in paint-splattered clothes, his outfit sometimes topped off with a beret. Neighborhood guys would scrounge scraps of plywood for him to use as canvases. Firefighters who were painting hydrants would bring him what was left in their buckets.
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Young was moved by the troubles he saw in the news: the Vietnam War. Protests. Sit-ins. Angels, he said, visited him and told him to paint. “I didn’t have nothing going for myself. That was the onliest thing I could mostly do,” Purvis said in a 2001 book, “Souls Grown Deep.” He returned to the same subjects over and over again: refugees arriving on boats, busy cityscapes full of trucks and buses, wild horses. The people in his work danced, prayed and grieved — often in crowds, suggesting an urgency. Pregnant women were a frequent theme; Purvis imagined them giving birth to angels and bringing forth a new nation. Sometimes his pregnant women had dozens of squiggly babies around them.
When he wasn’t painting, Young, a high school dropout, spent hours at the library, flipping through volumes about Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which charmed the librarians. When he learned about the “Wall of Respect,” a 1967 mural in Chicago that celebrated black history, he nailed up his own paintings in Goodbread Alley. “My feeling was the world might be better if I put up my protests,” he said in “Souls Grown Deep.” “I figured the world might get better, it might not, but it was just something I had to be doing.”
Young fit into the “self-taught,” “outsider” or “folk artist” genre that started gaining steam in the ’70s. His librarian friends arranged an exhibit of his work. The city hired him to do a few murals. Curious tourists coming off the new highway would stop and buy paintings for cash.
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By the mid-’70s when the buildings in Goodbread Alley were demolished, Young was being taken seriously as an artist. In 1989, a Miami art dealer, Joy Moos, signed Young to an exclusive contract and introduced his work to contemporary art galleries in New York and Chicago. Now 87, Moos recalled taking the artist to the dentist and helping him open his first bank account. In some ways, she said, “it was like taking a child.”
A Cuban Santeria priest named Silo Crespo acted as Young’s manager. According to Moos, Crespo told her that Young deserved a $30,000 or $60,000 base salary, plus commissions. When Moos balked — Young’s pieces sold for a few hundred or few thousand dollars, which she shared with the artist in an industry standard 50-50 split — Crespo put Santeria curses on her family. She hired a priestess to remove them: “I had to have the gallery cleaned. I had to do all this voodoo stuff with a cut chicken head.”
Leon Rolle, then a practicing lawyer, said Young asked him for help ending his contract with Moos so the artist could be free to negotiate with Gerard C. “William” Louis-Dreyfus — billionaire energy mogul, father of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and collector of self-taught artists. In Rolle’s telling, Louis-Dreyfus offered Young $3 million for 1,500 pieces and dangled the idea of sending him to Paris to paint. But the collector was worried about oversupply and wanted Young to destroy a third of his inventory. Rolle said Young rejected the deal, griping, “They never told Shakespeare he wrote too much!” (Both Crespo and Louis-Dreyfus have since died. Jeffrey Gilman, president of the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, doubted the billionaire would have wanted art destroyed: “He couldn’t even bring himself to sell anything!” Moos said Rolle and Crespo had unrealistic expectations of the value of Young’s work and didn’t understand the market.)
Young’s standing in the art world was solidified in 1994, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) bought one of his works, an untitled piece from around 1987.
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By the mid-’90s, Young had moved into a studio in Miami’s industrial Wynwood neighborhood, where he slept in a recliner with three TVs blaring at once. “One with Fox News,” said Sharon Rolle, “and one for the sex movie” — Eddie Mae laughed — “and one with his History Channel.” “And jazz music playing,” added Leon.
As his artwork piled up, the space became a fire hazard, and in 1999, Young faced eviction. By coincidence, art collectors Don and Mera Rubell, who had helped launch the careers of Keith Haring and Jeff Koons, admired Young’s work at a friend’s house and dropped by his studio. “With him, it’s all in the gesture,” Mera Rubell said at her museum this spring. “He could put 100 figures in a crowd just with his single wiggle and you could know they’re in protest, or a crowd witnessing a funeral.” She compared him to Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat and Alberto Giacometti.
The Rubells offered to buy his entire inventory, more than 3,000 pieces. Mera Rubell declined to disclose the price, but locals have speculated that it was anywhere from $60,000 to $1 million. Young told Lovest it was $85,000, but she’s not sure that’s right either. Whatever the amount, it was enough to save him from eviction. The Rubells vowed never to sell Young’s work and have gifted 493 of his pieces to institutions. When they gave 91 pieces to the Tampa Museum of Art in 2004, Sotheby’s appraised the gift at $1 million, an average of nearly $11,000 per piece; 109 works donated to Morehouse College in 2008 were valued at more than $1 million, over $9,000 apiece.
In Wynwood, around 2005, Young also met a gallerist named Martin Siskind who became his new manager. Now 78 and operating a gallery in Little Haiti, Siskind recalled the artist had a touch of cunning: “Everyone talks about, ‘He was a friendly giant, very ignorant, didn’t know the ways of the world.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth! People would try to take advantage of him. He felt he took advantage of them! Soon as they bought 10, 20 paintings, he’d say, ‘Man, I could paint another 20 paintings this afternoon.’ ”
It wasn’t long, though, before Young came to believe Siskind was the one trying to take advantage of him. He complained that Siskind allotted him just $500 a week, refused to provide an accounting of art sales and changed the locks to the warehouse where his paintings were stored, according to a lawsuit the artist later filed against Siskind. In January 2007, while Young was in the hospital for a kidney transplant, he fired Siskind from his bed in intensive care and retained a lawyer, Richard Zaden, to sue him. “We stopped what we were doing and put his case to the front burner,” Zaden recalled. Siskind argued their relationship had been a partnership and demanded 50 percent of Young’s inventory — about 1,000 pieces — to end it. He also told a probate judge that Young required a guardian. Young found out only when a court-appointed lawyer appeared at his bedside to perform an evaluation.
Guardianship is intended to protect vulnerable people, such as those with dementia, from mismanaging their finances or making harmful decisions. But critics of the system say it’s too easy to put a ward under a guardianship and give a stranger power over his life. Under Florida law, any adult can file a petition alleging that another is incapacitated. A three-person team investigates and reports to a probate judge. (One of the three must be a physician.) The judge decides whether to appoint a guardian, who can suggest which of the ward’s rights — such as voting or determining his own residence — should be taken away. Any high school graduate can become a professional guardian if they fulfill certain requirements, which include completing a 40-hour course and passing an exam, a credit check and a background check. Guardians are paid by the ward, as are lawyers brought in for court proceedings. As these bills add up, they can drain a ward’s savings. Critics also complain of coziness between judges and lawyers who work closely in guardianship courts.
People close to Young felt Siskind had sought the guardianship as retaliation, but Siskind insists he only had good intentions. “I thought [the guardians] would take care of him, and I could step aside and hope for the best,” he told me.
Miami-Dade probate court judge Maria Korvick, who oversaw Young’s guardianship case, declined to comment for this story, citing ethics rules, but in a 2018 court transcript, she remembered Young as someone who was in “very, very bad shape. … He didn’t like to listen to doctors, and he didn’t like to eat what he was supposed to, but he was a darling man.” She appointed two guardians: Anthony Romano, as “guardian of the person,” was tasked with overseeing Young’s housing and medical care; and David Mangiero, as “guardian of the property,” was charged with overseeing the artist’s assets and finances.