New Acquisitions: Purvis Young’s The Struggle

Purvis Young's The Struggle

American Art's curator of folk and self-taught art, Leslie Umberger, talks about the museum's recent acquisition of a major painting by Purvis Young, The Struggle. The artwork can be seen in the museum's east wing gallery on the third floor.

The Struggle, was done between 1973-74 by Purvis Young, who lived and worked in Miami until his death in 2010. Around 1971, Young began transforming an alley in his Miami neighborhood into a large-scale mural project. Goodbread Alley, as it was called, was by then, comprised of store fronts that had been condemned and boarded up by the city as part of rolling urban renewal project. It was in an area of Miami called Overtown, a neighborhood that has once been a thriving immigrant community but had since become a dangerous area plagued by poverty and crime.

During a stint in prison for robbery, Young had reflected on the direction of his life and become troubled by the plight of his community; he became very inspired by the African American activist murals in Detroit and Chicago. So, when he was released, he began making a mural of his own, knowing full well that the structures along the alley he was using as his canvas did not belong to him and would one day be demolished.

Between 1971 and 1974, Young focused on this mural. His subjects celebrated and historicized the neighborhood that he had spent his entire life in and although they charted struggle, they always contained an undercurrent of hope for a better future.

He became a local celebrity and the alley became a tourist attraction until its demise. At that point, some of the work was sold, some was scavenged, some went to dealers, and some was destroyed. And Young continued to paint in various studio settings for the next 3 1/2 decades, but the work made on site in Goodbread Alley is widely regarded as his most powerful; it is also the rarest.

View the documentary, Purvis of Overtown from Souls Grown Deep Foundation

The Struggle, is iconic of Young's themes of challenges and persistence. It is comprised not only of the major center panel showing interracial strife and the trials of immigrant life in a depressed area, but is bordered by a number of smaller, individually dated, paintings that offer a lyric balance to the core fight of life through abstracted figures shown working, dancing, singing, swimming, fighting, finding their way, trying to move up and on in the world, and holding up their arms in a show of unity.