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by Donald Kuspit
A miraculous state of affairs, when one stops to consider it: the creation of beauty out of squalor, inner riches out of external need. There are innumerable men and women who, given every conceivable advantage and encouragement, can create nothing at all. . . . The achievement of these artists is not in the least diminished by its having been wrought with clumsy hands. Of course the hands were clumsy. They were not only hands of genius, but plebian hands, as well. Emotional verity, not clumsiness, is the prime common quality of their work.
-- Wilhelm Uhde,
Five Primitive Masters(1)

. . . in the realm of folk art, visionary work is almost always serious -- irony is not a part of the folk artist’s world -- while whimsy provides the comic relief.

-- Russell Bowman,
"Varieties of Folk Expression"(2)

If the Negro spirituals are true only of a slave society they must be true of any similar group of people. . . .

-- James Porter,
"The Negro Artist and Racial Bias"(3)

Impulsive, vivid, created with a quick, sure, intense touch, Purvis Young’s paintings have the spontaneity, the emotional honesty, the immediacy, the dramatic directness and idiosyncrasy we have come to expect from folk art. Their painterly handling conveys a certain joie de vivre, even when it is streaked with black morbidity. I am thinking of Dance (ca. 1977), with its mingling of forceful, twisting drippings, ruthlessly black, and more subdued yellow marks, also painterly but fewer in number, all displayed on a rough and ready Mylar ground, a kind of crude dance floor for the excited paint. It is an abstract expressionist painting in all but name, however much the elongated black gestures can be read as dancing African-Americans. One can feel the beat in the paint, sense the ecstatic movement of the dancers, read their energy as emotional expression.

We have certainly come a long way from Matisse’s primitivist Dance II (1909-10), which these days looks somewhat staid in comparison. Matisse’s Fauve style seems somewhat mannered -- dare one say contrived? -- next to Young’s visceral expressionism -- over-refined and cautious compared to his reckless, seemingly styleless, even chaotic handling. Fauvism has been understood as instinctive painting, boldly breaking the rules of form with its inspired formlessness, the abstract dynamics that tends to disfigure the figure by exaggerating its vitality. But Young’s paintings are much more instinctive -- inherently dynamic -- and emotionally forthcoming. They are even more uncannily abstract, if the abstract conveys what Kandinsky called inner necessity better than the representational, as he suggested.

"I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it," Matisse famously wrote(4) -- the statement is in effect the expressionist’s credo -- but his translation seems to objectify and inhibit his feelings rather than freely express them. Matisse wants to give them stylistic shape -- keep them at a certain esthetic distance, under aesthetic control -- rather than let them take the intimate shape their intensity has to take to make itself felt -- to stir the viewer to his or her unsuspected depths. To use Kandinsky’s distinction again, Matisse remains bound by the demands of external necessity -- stylistic propriety, esthetic good manners, representational demands, preconceptions of expression (and for that matter of feeling) -- however determined he is to make a work determined entirely by inner necessity. I think that it is much more difficult to distinguish between Young’s feeling about life and his artistic translation of it than Matisse’s. Feeling and art are much more seamlessly one in Young’s paintings. They seem more directly felt and spontaneous than Matisse’s, and with that informed by firsthand experience of life. Matisse’s paintings tend to filter spontaneous feelings through foreordained ideas of art, thus satisfying social expectations -- and implying that feelings are foreordained, predictable -- rather than allowing them to be socially disruptive and unsettling, as deep feelings always are.

Young’s feelings and paintings are fissures or tears in the social fabric, indicating its flawed character, its veneer-like thinness -- signaled by the Potemkin façade of pasteboard buildings in several of Young’s city scenes -- while Matisse’s feelings and paintings, for all their seeming instinctiveness and emotional candor, have a social decorum that belies their supposed depth. I am saying that Young -- and by extension what Uhde calls clumsy primitive artists in general (today they’re called outsider or self-taught artists) -- are more emotionally pure than Matisse ever thought of being, however esthetically pure or fundamental -- entirely a matter of what Clement Greenberg called "formal factors" -- his Fauvism seems to be, once one realizes that it is inadequate as a translation or expression of feeling, itself a translation or expression of lived experience. Young’s paintings are much closer in spirit -- and in their social subject matter -- to the early expressionistic drawings and prints of Kirchner than to Matisse’s French expressionism. Like Kirchner, who learned his primitivism from African sculpture -- it gave him the license to be instinctive as well as innovative -- Young’s instinctive primitivism breaks the boundaries of good taste, all the more so because his gestural figures, for all their apparent formlessness, give energetic human form to a "tasteless" social environment.      

Art historically, Young’s folk expressionism reads as an intriguing example of late-20th century Expressionism. His black gestural figures, with their hallucinatory vividness, are reminiscent of Pollock’s late black drip paintings, where the gestures are also ambiguously figures, bizarrely surreal however purely painted. But Young’s gestural figures are more explosively alive. They all but jump out of the frame. Paint marks it, forming a trace of their presence, suggesting that they are too vital to be inhibited by it -- to be imprisoned in any socializing frame. Like the Mylar, the frame is a found, beaten up, old material. Young breathes new life into these dead materials by making them part of the living picture. He resurrects discarded materials, bringing out their social meaning by using them to expressionistic effect. 

However gesturally pure -- however abstractly dynamic Young’s handling -- his dancing figures are Black Americans, like Young himself, or Negroes, as Blacks were called when James Porter wrote in 1937. "Black" means "bad" in the vulgar imagination, and unconsciously has morbid associations, perhaps because one dresses in colorless black to attend funerals, confirming that black means death. "Black has an inner sound of nothingness bereft of possibilities" Kandinsky wrote, "a dead nothingness as if the sun had become extinct, an eternal silence without future, without hope. . . . It is like the silence of the body after death, the close of life. Black is externally the most toneless color, against which all other colors, even the weakest, sound stronger and more precise."(5) He adds: "It was not for nothing that white was chosen as the vestment of pure joy and immaculate purity. And black as the vestment of the greatest, most profound mourning and as the symbol of death."(6)

As though confirming the unfortunateness of being Black -- certainly the difficulty of being Black in a predominantly white society -- Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant observe: "In the mental images of an age, the Black is associated with a primitive stage of human development when barbarity was triumphant, but loyalty too; capricious blood-letting, but kindness as well; in other words, with a state in which opposites existed as a series of sudden changes, not balanced by a uniform state of tension." They continue: "Jung considered ‘black’ to be the dark side of the personality and one of the first stages to be passed, while ‘white’ was the end to which perfection developed. In this he was in accord with the theories of the alchemists, from whom ‘Great Work’ originated from ‘blackness’. Black would thus mark the initial stage of evolutionary progress or, inversely, the final stage of a regression. The identification of the Black with Rousseau’s or Bernardin de St. Pierre’s ‘noble savage’, and the 18th-century fashion for Negro pages, are noteworthy. Their symbolism shares to some degree that of the dwarf and the buffoon."(7) Chevalier and Gheerbrant note "the unconscious racism of such images, so patent are they to any observer." All imply that that the Black is inferior, emotionally and physically, and thus a fool. Racist though it may be, the association of black with "negative" and white with "positive" is ingrained in the collective unconscious.

So how is one to make the best of being born black in a white society? That I think is what Young’s art is about: making the artistic best of being black, which means expressing blackness -- the sense of outsiderness, otherness, marginality inescapable in black social experience -- with as much artistic conviction and insight as possible. But I will argue that Young does something more, something deeply insightful: he implies that we are all blacks -- "blackened" by society -- whether we know it or not. White lives are as filled with "blackness" as black lives. Whites also have "the blues," and need spiritual enlivening -- revitalization by music and dance. Whether they know it or not, whites are also slaves, reduced to inconsequential ciphers -- anonymous undifferentiated non-persons -- in modern mass society. In Young’s pictures it is as crowded, cramped, and confining as a slave ship.

"The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation," Thoreau famously said, and blacks understand this quiet desperation even as they overcome it with their artistic originality -- the improvisational spontaneity of their jazz, and the intense dances that accompany it. Native Americans are also outsiders -- beyond the pale of mainstream white society -- which is why Young depicts and identifies with them, conveying their spiritual ceremonies.(8) For him they have an uncanny affinity with black music and dance. Both are distant cousins of Young’s dancing gestural jazz, the "black" handling that is in effect a visual translation of it. [Thelonius] Monk Playin’ to the Angels (1991) and Miles [Davis] (ca. 1987) makes explicit the connection between Young’s gestural, improvisational paintings and "gestural," improvised jazz. (Can one read Young’s expressionistic gestures as a kind of visual scat? It is worth noting that Davis, a great jazz musician, was also an important expressionistic painter. And that improvisation is a basic modernist "technique," as the art critic Harold Rosenberg notes.)

Both Native American and Black American music and dance originated as spiritual expressions -- they have a ceremonial quality meant to raise the spirit even as they plumb its depths -- however secularized and commercialized they have become in white society, which diluted and appropriated them as tourist attractions. I suggest that Young’s expressionistic folk art -- folk art in general, and especially black folk art -- vigorously resists appropriation and dilution by way of its clumsiness, its most noteworthy esthetic -- or rather unesthetic -- feature. Clumsiness is the "anti-social" feature which drew Uhde and many later theorists, also disillusioned by high art, to it.  It was the esthetic and social nonconformity -- the so-called primitivism and outsiderness -- of folk art that drew them to it, not only because they were searching for an alternative to traditional esthetics, but because they thought it had exhausted its potential and had to be negated. It had become creatively irrelevant. It is no doubt esthetically clumsy by formalist standards, and too bound to social experience to achieve the artistic authenticity that supposedly automatically comes with autonomy, but folk art has its own standards of authenticity and creativity, and its own esthetics. 

I will argue that the built-in transgressiveness or inherent nonconformity of black folk art makes it offensive to white society, and impossible to completely assimilate culturally (despite the efforts of such figures as Norman Mailer, a self-styled "white negro"). Blacks are by definition transgressive nonconformists in white society because they are outsiders in it, however much their outsiderness was ironically created by it, that is, by the fact that they were its slaves. Thus whites experience blacks as "radically different" however much their mistreatment of blacks made them radically different -- utterly alien. From a white point of view, black folk art embodies this utter alienness, at once social and artistic. From a black point of view, black folk art spiritually transcends white society and suggests the emotional superiority -- greater humanity -- of black culture. Unrefined clumsiness transcends refined society -- think of the pretentious refinement of the Southern slaveholders, mythologized in such novels as Gone with the Wind, who managed and owned the antebellum plantations (moral disgrace hidden behind social grace) -- even as it conveys defiant outsiderness, alienness that insists on its right to express itself.   

Young’s paintings have a certain "lawlessness," from the point of view of high white art, reflecting the problems with the law that Young has had -- Been Framed (ca. 1993) makes the point clearly if ironically, as the double meaning of the title suggests (it refers to the frame around his self-portrait, even as it implies that he was framed for a crime he did not commit and wrongly arrested, suggesting that it is also the frame of the window of his prison cell) -- but being lawless is a way of repudiating a society that has failed one. "Above the law," one rises above society, however much it casts one down -- punishes one -- for doing so. White society appropriates black music and dance by popularizing it, which shows its envy of black creativity, even as it trivializes their spiritual meaning and purpose, not to say emotional vitality -- and also suggests the spiritual bankruptcy and inhumanity of white society. But black culture remains a thorn in its side, for it unconsciously reminds white society of its crimes against blacks.

Young may be isolated in his prison cell, but his isolation damns white society, for his situation reminds us that the majority of people ostracized in American prisons are black. White society may no longer lynch blacks -- Young lives in the South (Miami), which was the center of such lynchings -- but it continues to commit crimes against them by forcing them to become criminals to survive. Young may or may not be guilty of some crime, but whites should feel guilty looking at his pictures of black life.    

In other words, there are "black folk" and "white folk," and white folk artists and black folk artists -- the white Colonial folk artists that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller collected(9) and such black folk artists as Purvis Young. They grew up in different environments, and their different life experiences gave them different perspectives on society, which translated into artistic differences and different senses of selfhood. Nonetheless, they have certain artistic similarities and share certain attitudes and ideals, for both black and white folk artists are generally "plain folk," or, to use Uhde’s word, "plebian," and, one might add, poor. Plain folk -- so-called "simple people" -- are often deeply religious, partly in defensive responsiveness to their lack of worldly possessions. Religion raises them up in defiance of the society that deprives them of a decent living. Religion makes them feel good, and confirms that society is bad -- not them. Thus both white and black folk artists sometimes "attribute their artistic creativity to God’s calling." Young’s folk art, along with that of Howard Finster, Elijah Pierce, and Sister Gertrude Morgan, "is often perceived as God’s message. . . . made visible by their hands."(10) It is thus a mode of preaching -- an invitation to the public to praise the Lord as their art does.

 It is worth noting that for Uhde "plebian" is not simply descriptive of the lowest social class but a term of moral praise. For the upper classes, especially the aristocracy, which regarded itself as innately superior to the plebian class, had, along with its art, become immoral and decadent, and thus unworthy of ruling -- hardly the model of higher being, not to say judge of value, it claimed to be -- not to say socially irrelevant in modern democratic times, as Uhde and many others realized, beginning as early as Rousseau. An art of the common people, like Young’s, may be "uneducated" by the formal standards of aristocratic art, but it has greater "inner riches" than aristocratic art, as Uhde suggests, whatever the "informality" that makes it seem clumsy or graceless, not to say tactless, by aristocratic standards of finesse and politesse. For Uhde, plebian art was clearly a revolutionary art -- morally, socially and esthetically revolutionary.   

The faceless black crowds -- they are little more than a herd (of black sheep?), for their whole identity is in their blackness -- pictured in Young of Overtown (ca. 1985), Truck Off Loadin and Figures (both ca. 1991), Figures (Combine) (ca. 1992), Eyes Over Figures (ca. 1990), and many other works, are all "plebian." When they are not at work or crowded into what is a claustrophobic space that is a ghetto in all but name, they are victims, like the figures in Riots of the MLK Assassination (1969), or at war (implicitly with white society), like the Buffalo Soldiers (late 1980s). Young’s numerous crowd scenes, with their horror vacui, are pressure cookers -- one feels the pressure building up in them and exploding in their gestural handling.

The world depicted in these paintings is implicitly -- and sometimes explicitly -- dangerous and violent. But there is another kind of picture, what I want to call Young’s visual spirituals -- images of spiritual aspiration, hope, and rapture. Sage on Mountain (ca. 1991) epitomizes them -- a sort of savior appears in the midst of the black crowd, who worshipfully dance around him. The luminous Cloaked Sage (late 1990s) makes the point more simply: a single saintly figure, wrapped in light, majestically appears in the surrounding darkness. The figure is totally abstract and flat, like a robed figure in a Byzantine icon, despite the utter simplicity of the robe’s drapery. It is "the vestment of pure joy and immaculate purity," to recall Kandinsky’s remarks about white. The sacred figure symbolizes spiritual knowledge, Young’s "seeing the light" despite the adversity of his life. It is an image of the spiritual transcendence that suffering makes possible in general, especially the suffering that comes with being a slave. Spirituality helps one mentally survive, whatever happens to one physically. Socially degraded and dehumanized -- deliberately benighted and treated as inferior by nature -- blacks become capable of a spirituality beyond the reach of their white masters. Young lives off the heritage of black spirituality that emerged during slavery, a spiritual integrity and independence that remains alive and well in black churches. But I suggest that the Cloaked Sage (Obatala) is not a black person made white in the eyes of the Lord, however much he may seem to read as one -- and thus as insidiously betraying his blackness -- but an alchemical symbol: a "’Great Work’ originated from ‘blackness’," to recall the words of Chevalier and Gheerbrant. In other words, the Cloaked Sage is a universal symbol of spiritual transformation as well as of black spiritual transformation -- an angel, like those that appear in other pictures, if also a black angel. The figure is ambiguous, which makes it more meaningful and expressive.  

Eyes over Figures is Young at his ambiguous best: Do the all-seeing sky blue eyes belong to the Big White Brother in charge of the black inmates in a panoptical prison -- which is what the division of the work into four sections, implicitly cages or holding pens, seems to turn the picture into -- or to the Good Lord, as the hopeful cross in the painting implies? Which is more to the expressive point of the painting, the harshness of the scene -- the lower depths, as it were -- or the pie-in-the-sky eyes? (There is the same juxtaposition -- unresolved tension -- in Blue Eyes, 1989.) The answer is not clear. Perhaps they are confused in Young’s unconscious, because he has spent time in prison as well as in church. But then they are also confused by white Christians, who view God as a caretaker and undertaker in one.  

Young’s paintings confront us with the dilemma that has haunted the understanding of black art from the moment it was first "recognized" by white society.  It has been regarded as formally problematic, which gives it a certain expressive edge over traditional well-formed art, or, on the other hand, as formally unique, which gives it a certain stylistic edge. E. H. Gombrich describes the contradiction by comparing the art historian Karl Woermann’s and the art critic Roger Fry’s views of African sculpture. For Woermann, "the imagination of the laughter-loving Negroes tends toward the grotesque, the comic, the weird," which is why "their sculpture inclines to caricature, emphasizing the ugly, the abnormal, the indecent." Woermann, writing in 1910-11, adds: "Where wholly fantastic human images are created the intention to frighten, to create nightmares, no doubt also plays its part." In contrast, for Fry the "Negro [sculptor] scores heavily by his willingness to reduce the limbs to a succession of ovoid masses. . . his plastic sense leads him to give its utmost amplitude and relief to all protuberant parts of the body and to get thereby an extraordinarily emphatic sequence of planes."(11) The painter Josef Capek, writing about "Negro Sculpture" about the same time as Fry (1918), brings the extremes together: "A Negro -- though we may find in him many childish traits -- is not a big child, or an undeveloped, deprived man," and his sculpture is not childish or undeveloped, let alone "savage," but follows the "law" of "the relation of formal motives" rather than the "canon [of] ancient proportionality. . . . The Negro does not care about proportionality and anatomy, yet the whole is organic and alive. Shapes set themselves in relation to each other vividly, almost paradoxically; they collide dynamically and create strong, striking contrasts." Capek notes that shapes are "simplified," making them more "vivid," adding that "there is no firmly frozen artistic schema" in Negro sculpture but rather "much figural invention."(12)

Young’s pictures are full of abrupt spatial and formal contrasts -- sudden changes in scale and in the relations of shapes -- and figurally inventive. Their strong plastic sensibility is matched by their social consciousness. I will argue that they tend to social caricature and criticism of black as well as white society -- which is one way of dealing with a social nightmare from which one can only awaken by developing a spiritual consciousness -- and his forms tend to reduce to flat planes, so much so that his planar figures seem to be embedded in the flat ground even as they stand out from it with a peculiarly relief-like and iconic intensity by reason of their gestural power and organic texture. The heads in Angels over the City (ca. 1998) are a case in point, and, with respect to social nightmare, Pregnant Lady and the grotesque Pregnant Lady with Syringe on Top of the World (both ca. 1994) are a very telling case in point.

Which brings me to another issue raised by Young’s "jazzy" social paintings: is their jazziness -- their rhythmic power -- a quasi-esthetic way of conforming to white society? Each black squiggle may be the spirit of a black person -- the creative genii that the black body seems when it dances -- but it also has what T. W. Adorno called the "intentionally clumsy stumbling of the eccentric clown. . . . A helpless, powerless subject is presented, one that is ridiculous in his expressive impulses." Are Young’s expressive impulses ridiculous? Does their clumsy stumbling have an ulterior motive, as Adorno ironically suggests? "Now the formula of jazz is this, that precisely by virtue of his weakness and helplessness this subject represented by irregular rhythms adapts himself to the regularity of the total process, and because he, so to speak, confesses his own impotence, he is accepted into the collective and rewarded by it. . . . [I]n return for the individual erasing himself and acknowledging his own nullity, he can vicariously take part in the power and the glory of the collective to which he is bound by this spell. . . . While to the naïve consciousness jazz, now long standardized, occasionally seems anarchic, the expression of uninhibited erotic impulses [and, one might add, aggressive impulses], it permits these impulses only in order to cut them off and to reassert the system."(13)

Jazz is black music, that is, it was invented by blacks and supposedly derived from African music. Does the clumsiness of Young’s paintings, which seem to dance to jazz -- while are informed by the energy and intuitive intelligence of jazz -- unwittingly reveal his weakness and helplessness? Is the clumsiness the clown’s defense against the social impotence he feels even as it unwittingly expresses it? Is the nothingness of blackness -- of the blacks Young often represents as gestural blurs, thus stripping them of their human identity while rendering them compelling by reason of their "savage" energy (thus confirming stereotypes about blackness) -- Young’s basic message? Young’s gestural figures can hardly be called individuals, however individual the gestures that give them black substance.

Is he seeing them with the eyes of white society or with black eyes that have seen suffering and the ghetto? Does his flamboyant eroticism and aggression, conveyed by fiery, sometimes sultry reds and ominously impinging blacks -- Red Moon Over Miami (ca. 1977) is a particularly clear example -- along with his exhibitionistic gestures, confirm the white view of blacks as impulsive, that is, without self-control and self-reflection and thus like children? But all of Young’s paintings are self-reflections and reflections on black experience, and none are aimlessly impulsive, as their geometrical forms make clear. Nonetheless, a typical Young painting is a matrix of gestures that seem awkward and eccentric because they are forceful. They break through the image-form without breaking it up -- it never disintegrates however insistent the gestures -- much the way an unconscious feeling breaks through a conscious perception without completely undermining it: instead distorting it, which makes it resonant with a meaning it would not otherwise have.

I suggest that to convey unconscious feeling is "to express dissent," which is what Adorno thinks art should do in a society in which we are all oppressed slaves, whether we know it or not -- and blacks know it. The seeming foolishness or childishness or comical clumsiness of Young’s painterliness is a humanizing criticism of oppression. Young’s gestures do not neatly fit into his social and figural imagery, as though into the Procrustean bed of a mechanical representation, but have an organic and independent life of their own -- a nonconformist inner life which is implicitly a critique of conformist white society. Adorno, a Marxist esthetician, thinks that art can best serve social revolution by being visually nonconformist -- stubbornly contradictory. Young suggests that such contrariness, with its heightened expressivity, is spiritual nonconformity. It is a sign of inward or spiritual change, and for Young and other folk artists -- black and white -- one must change inwardly before one can change society. One must get religion, as his spiritual paintings suggest, before one can "get" society. Young’s forceful gestures are a way of getting both -- purging his spirit and sticking it to society.

"Young has lived all of his years in the shabby, lively streets of Overtown, a black neighborhood on the margin of downtown Miami and its opulent cluster of gleaming glass towers," Paula Harper writes.(14) Young’s Overtown streets, with their cheap red brick buildings, suggest the Capitalist indifference and social hypocrisy that built the expensive glass towers, with their deceptive transparency. In Shakespeare’s plays, the clown dares tell the king the truth he doesn’t want to hear. So Young’s Overtown paintings bear witness to a social truth upscale Miami doesn’t want to hear. Showing the underside of Capitalism, Young undermines its pretensions. The spirituality of his pictures is socially critical, for it implies the spiritlessness of downtown Miami. Wealth has replaced spirituality there, but spirituality still lives in the plebian slums, where it has lived since the days of Christ. Indeed, the split between the Overtown streets Young paints and the downtown skyscrapers he doesn’t paint repeats the conflict between Christ and Caesar, that is, the sacred and the profane, the otherworldly and worldly. The paradox of Young’s pictures is that the profane streets, with their socially powerless blacks, are inwardly sacred, and the grandiose skyscrapers sacred to Capitalism, and inhabited by whites (wage slaves all, with the emphasis on "slave") -- the white man’s pretentious buildings invisibly haunt Young’s poor man’s pictures -- are inwardly profane.     

Only inner change can give one the spiritual strength to change society for the better. The seeming clumsiness of Young’s jazzy paintings, which makes them comical to white eyes, is a sign that a spiritual struggle is underway, that inner change is in process -- that Young is moving from feeling socially weak and helpless, and futilely rebellious, as criminality inevitably is, to feeling strong and self-helping, which, among other things, is what making art is for him. Making spiritually critical art -- soul music and dance expressed with visual fervor, as though Young was painting at a church revivalist meeting (one may recall that in the Old Testament David dances and sings in praise of the Lord) -- makes him feel like something, however much white society may think he is nothing, that is, merely black, and a guilty criminal to boot, which is to be doubly outcast.

The angels in Three Angels Over City (ca. 1989) and Angels Over the City (ca. 1998), and Guardian Angels (late 1990s) have ovoid heads, like the "ovoid masses" of African sculpture that Fry noted. The heads in Sitting Bull and Madonna and Child (both early 1990s) and Talking Out (ca. 1993) are also ovoids -- abstract shapes however marked by a mask-like face. The numerous buildings that appear in Young’s paintings -- City Streets (1992), Insects in My Dreams (ca. 1994), Life in the City (1995), Crossroads (mid-1990s) and Papa Legba-Eleggua (late 1990s), along with the paintings of angels, are examples -- are simple rectangles. Truck Yard and Train Depot (1975) is a particularly eloquent example of Young’s inventive use of rectangles. Cloaked Sage and the totemic figures in Mule with Bag O’Gold (ca. 1994)are abstract constructions of circle (head) and rectangle (body). In Insects (late 1990s), a white triangle cuts into the tangle of gestures like a bolt of lightning -- a brilliant use of a purely abstract form. The wooden panels that frame the scene, and many others -- for example, Shango Rides a White Horse and Worship (both mid-1990s) -- were found on the streets of Overtown. Young may be a clumsy primitivist, but he uses discarded found materials with modernist cunning. He is as geometrical as he is gestural, suggesting that he easily oscillates between abstraction and empathy -- detachment and responsiveness -- to use Wilhelm Worringer’s familiar distinction. Expressive gesture informs severe geometry, busily incorporating it in the scene -- Father (1994) is a striking example -- and sublime geometry contains manic gesture, conveying a sense of restraint and control.

However deceptively simple their components, Young’s pictures are complicated balancing acts, not only between geometry and gesture, but between large (heads) and small (figures), flashing colors and fierce blackness. The extremes meet and hold together, however expressively at odds they seem. Young can be overwhelmingly gestural, as in Play Ball (1986), and almost calmly sublime, as in the sky blue Guardian Angels, with its inventive use of an "edgy" piece of broken masonite as a canvas, but there is always a hint of the opposite in the work. Even when his figures are absurdly distorted -- by life experience -- as in the golden Pregnant Lady and the grim Pregnant Lady With Syringe on Top of the World, which I regard as masterpieces of black folk art -- they maintain their bearing and balance, and with that their dignity. Certainly the black figures Carrying the Beloved (ca. 1999) are noble as well as holy.     

That blackness, even more than his gesturalism and geometry, confirms that Young is a modernist in spirit. "Modern art seeks to obviate the magical commodity fetishism of the disenchanted world by means of its own magical moment, which is blackness," Adorno writes,(15) suggesting the unconscious identification of the modern artist with the black outsider -- perhaps the reason so many modern artists were excited and inspired by African sculpture, from Picasso to Pollock, from Vlaminck to de Kooning, and beyond. They emulated it in their own particular way, their fascination and exploitation of it confirming their feeling of being rebellious outsiders. They too used found materials in their collages -- Young has used electric wire (Raiford, 1992), suggesting the "electricity" of his gestures (there is certainly a "shocking current" in them) and painted on a metal tray (Freedom Boat, 1993, indicating his identification with the Cubans who fled to Miami in search of freedom) and, more often, on wood -- and practiced what they regarded as the black magic of exorcism, to recall the words Picasso used to describe his first experience of totemic African sculptures.

His use of street materials in his collages -- the materials were often labels from commodities (the labels were fetishes, but also fetishized the commodities they advertised and signified) -- made them artistically enchanting. They were no longer commonplace markers of magical commodities, but had become magically abstract themselves -- esthetic ends in themselves -- by being transformed into art. Their materialistic Capitalist spirit was exorcized by giving them esthetic purpose and presence: acquiring esthetic meaning purified and spiritualized them. Young performs the same artistic magic with his found materials -- his street junk. His art is also an act of exorcism -- exorcizing the Capitalist devil from the waste(land) that it has left in its wake. Used in art, the junk is no longer socially useless, low down, and "common," but suddenly a magical, "higher" substance. The found materials are no longer the symbols of the "shiftless," "useless" blacks -- the human junk(ies) -- found in Overtown. The magical skyscrapers of downtown Miami -- magical because they gleam with wealth and social power -- are the totemic fetishes of Capitalism. The lowly streets and figures of Young’s Overtown magically exorcise them by contradicting them -- showing their hellish underside and raising it to artistic heaven.

African sculpture was the ultimate "outsider art," and to make art inspired by it announced that one was also the ultimate outsider. If blackness is implicitly subversive and transgressive, and thus shocking or traumatic to white "insiders," then modern art’s dependence on so-called primitive art for the "shock of the new" -- which was clearly old in Africa -- makes it a "black art," which means a neo-primitivist art. African black art seemed risky because it was opposed to West European white art, and thus confirmed the modern artist’s willingness to take risks to affirm his or her creative freedom. It also seemed to be a direct expression of the unconscious, and as such had an uncanny effect, which is what modern art aimed at from the Fauvist start. Black art was the expressionist nightmare that awakened artists from the daydream that West European art had become in the 19th century. There was thus a modernist method and motive in the seeming "madness" of black art. Avant-gardism is at bottom a regression to the "black art" of the outsider primitive in the service of the ego of art that had exhausted the resources of the Classical tradition. Avant-gardism is unthinkable without "instinctive" primitivism, indeed, grounded on its emotional idealism and reductivist esthetics. I am suggesting that Young kept the avant-garde outsider tradition alive -- just when it seemed to have become exhausted and clichéd -- by reason of the black outsiderness, vigorous primitivism, rhythmic energy, and esthetic "edginess" of his art, and the social challenge it poses to white society and Capitalism. His blackness is not borrowed from Africa but homegrown -- all-American, however much his totemic figures have magical African ancestors -- which makes it very contemporary.   

For Harold Rosenberg, the dialectic between folk art and modernism -- the "energies" of the former have infused the latter since "Baudelaire found himself moved by. . . the self-expression of a local house painter" and "Rimbaud emphasized that the junky poetry of street art had a major part in his ‘alchemy of the word’"(16) --  is a constant of modern art. He notes that folk art, "whether native or borrowed from foreign cultures (e.g., Africa)," is inherently "original," that is, it returns to the esthetic fundamentals of art in the act of making an imaginative leap forward. It involves a "skilled use of unskill," making it "the model for an uninhibited making of works."(17)  At the same time, it is rooted in a "social environment," and as such "escapes the handicaps that plague modernism," among them the pursuit of precedence -- "everybody comes first" in folk art -- and the problem of what Rosenberg calls the "anxious object," that is, a work of art that is simultaneously and ironically not art.

Purvis Young and Jean-Michel Basquiat are the ideal "folk modernists" of our time. Their works are not inhibited by stylistic models, but freely borrow whatever forms are needed to make an imaginative statement. There is an air of spontaneity to their art that, as Rosenberg says, is the secret of "timelessness." They are both black artists, and convey the experience of being black in white America -- of living in an alien social environment. Perhaps above all, they make the black "invisible man," as Ralph Ellison famously called him, very visible -- a force to be reckoned with artistically as well as socially.

The figures in Young’s The System (mid-1990s) are directly comparable to those in Basquiat’s Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982). But there is a crucial difference:  Basquiat’s boy is a skeleton, his dog vicious -- the black dog is a traditional symbol of the devil -- while Young’s figures are moved by a higher power: they are spiritually possessed, as though in sacred ceremony. Basquiat’s menacing figure reflects black anger, while Young’s figure suggests black spirituality, implicitly triumphing over social adversity. Young shows that spiritual good can come from social evil, while Basquiat futilely rages against the world: spiritual self-transformation is the theme of Young’s art, while self-defeat is the theme of Basquiat’s art.

Spiritual rather than angry, Young’s art is bound to have a wider emotional appeal than Basquiat’s, which looks backward to black oppression rather than forward to universal enlightenment, as Young’s art does. Basquiat’s black devils are no match for Young’s angels, who easily rise above them. They float in atmospheric heaven, while Basquiat’s gestural atmosphere is like the gnashing of teeth. In the end, it is Young who is the humanly more important artist, and even esthetically more engaging, for his gestures are not derived from graffiti but from the uplifted hands of black worshippers.

This essay is adapted from the text for a forthcoming monograph on Purvis Young to be published by Skot Foreman Fine Art. For inquiries, contact

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


(1) Wilhelm Uhde, Five Primitive Masters (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 13-14

(2) Russell Bowman, "Varieties of Folk Expression: The Hemphill Collection," American Folk Art: The Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. Collection (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1981), 25

(3) James A. Porter, "The Negro Artist and Racial Bias" (1937), Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History, eds. Jack Flam and Miriam Deutch (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2003), 253

(4) Quoted in Jack Flam, ed., Matisse on Art (New York: Dutton, 1978), 36

 (5) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 185

(6) Ibid., 186

(7) Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London and New York: Penguin, 1996), 96

(8) Afeye L. Tyehimba, "Tell My Horse: The Ancestral Spirits of Purvis Young," Purvis Young: Possession (New York: Skot Foreman Fine Art, 2001), 3, writes: "Just as the Seminole Indians befriended runaway African slaves generations ago, Young’s red, white and black figures often band together during a ‘processional’ to celebrate god and nature, to bury the dead, to dance around sage-tinged bonfires, cleansing body, mind and spirit." As she says, Young’s ancestors include Seminole Indians as well as African slaves. He clearly has a feeling of kinship with both, and his works are broadly ecumenical and full of community spirit, however much the community he largely deals with is African-American. Young’s paintings clearly integrate a unique mix of heritages and traditions.

Tyehimba also notes (5) the fusion of Voudu, Santeria, and Christian gods -- Eshu, Papa Legba or Ellegua, Ogun, and Jesus Christ and the Madonna (and the saints, their devotees and surrogates), all messenger gods who take humble form (like black street people) -- in Young’s paintings. Young’s horse-and-rider paintings, Tyehimba writes (4), "epitomize a phenomenon once described by the great Harlem Renaissance writer and Florida native Zora Neale Hurston in her anthropological classic, Tell My Horse. While traveling in Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s, Hurston. . . saw people get possessed by African gods, called Loa. The gods would ‘ride’ their devotees like horses, communing with them, giving them strength to survive poverty and oppression [and despair, one might add], telling them the secrets of herbs to treat ailments, commanding them to preserve the ancient rites and culture of their ancestors," in effect internalizing them. Young’s pictures are clearly meant to have a healing effect -- to heal him and Overtown of "black despair" by showing them the light of the primordial gods. For Young jazz is clearly associated with "the sounds of guitars, tambourines and drums that pull sweat from clapping Southern Baptist believers who, in the Christian tradition, become ‘saints’ through salvation" (5) and thus immortalized -- a process clearly pictured in his paintings. All of this suggests the ritual, shamanistic character of Young’s work. They are meant to effect the transformational, uplifting experience they picture, and they magically do by completely absorbing one’s attention.

(9) See Beatrix T. Rumford and Carolyn J. Weekley, Treasures of American Folk Art from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center (Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1989). There is not a single black folk artist in the collection, suggesting its unconscious racism. It is largely a celebration of the work of the white Anglo-Saxon folk artists who were among the first settlers of the original 13 colonies. 

(10) ibid., 180   

(11) E. H. Gombrich, The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art (London and New York: Phaidon, 2002), 218

(12) Josef Capek, "Negro Sculpture," Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History, eds. Jack Flam and Miriam Deutch (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2003), 113, 115

(13) T. W. Adorno, "Sociology of Art and Music," Aspects of Sociology by the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 113

(14) Paula Harper, "Urban Expressionist," Purvis Young: Paintings from the Street (Boca Raton: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 2006), 7

(15) T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 86

(16) Harold Rosenberg, "The Peaceable Kingdom: American Folk Art," Art on the Edge (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 289

(17) ibid., 293