Beloved outsider artist Purvis Young left behind hundreds of paintings and a complicated legal case

Deirdra Funcheon

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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.

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. 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 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.”

ABOVE & BELOW: Purvis Young with his many paintings at Goodbread Alley in Miami circa early 1970s; and an undated photograph of Purvis Young in his studio.. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

At the Rubell Museum, Lovest’s friends and relatives arrived at the exhibit, congregating beside the gift shop, where hardcover catalogues of Young’s art retail for USD49.95. “I’m just here for the dollar art,” one friend quipped. The group struggled to reconcile the crowded scene they were witnessing with what the judge had determined: that there was no market for the paintings Young left behind when he died. One court inventory had listed their value at USD1 apiece.

Young’s heirs were, by the time of the exhibit, enmeshed in a bid to unscramble what had happened. Their saga would involve legal proceedings in three separate courts, attorneys trading accusations of misconduct, and troubling aspects of Florida’s laws that are supposed to protect the vulnerable.

Purvis Young grew up in Overtown, a historically black neighbourhood 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. Neighbourhood 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.

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.

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.”

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 “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 USD3 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. Leslie Umberger, current curator of folk and self-taught art, said that the SAAM went on to acquire four more of his pieces, including The Struggle, which she called “a treasure of the museum.” (The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, also has a Purvis Young painting. Historical materials related to him are kept in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and the Smithsonian Libraries.)

By the mid-’90s, Young had moved into a studio in Miami’s industrial Wynwood neighbourhood, where he slept in a recliner with three TVs blaring at once. 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 USD60,000 to USD1 million. Young told Lovest it was USD85,000, 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 USD1 million, an average of nearly USD11,000 per piece; 109 works donated to Morehouse College in 2008 were valued at more than USD1 million, over USD9,000 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 USD500 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 per cent 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.

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.

After Young was discharged from the hospital, he moved into the Rolles’ detached garage. He filled it, then the yard, with paintings. A plastic tray on the Rolles’ kitchen table still shows signs of attack: three yellow squiggles. Mangiero and Zaden decided to settle with Siskind – resulting in Young having to give the gallerist 20 per cent of his inventory, about 200 paintings, according to news accounts. (Mangiero did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, bills from the guardians and lawyers started to come in. Rolle recalled the artist complaining as the costs added up: “Why I got to pay them? I didn’t send for them!” But to get the guardianship removed required going to a court-appointed doctor. The Rolles said in Young’s case, that meant a psychiatrist, which he refused to see. Leon Rolle recalled Lenny Kravitz coming to his house one day to visit Young. “He sat for an hour and a half. He said, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with this guy – why is he in a guardianship?’ ” (Kravitz did not respond to requests for comment.)

In June 2009, Young crafted a will naming Lovest and 12 of her children and grandchildren as the beneficiaries of 99 per cent of his estate; one per cent would go to his brother, Irvin Byrd. That winter, Romano, his guardian of the person, moved Young into a nursing home. “Lights out at 10:30,” said Sharon Rolle. “He couldn’t paint. He lasted five months.”

On April 20, 2010, Young died of cardiac arrest and pulmonary edema. Upon hearing of his passing, Kravitz recorded a video from the Bahamas: “May your spirit rise up to the heavens as they do in your paintings. Peace, my brother.” He blew a kiss.

What followed was a legal drama so complex that one judge who presided over part of it suggested it be studied in law schools. Court records show that after Young died, the guardianship case was closed. A separate probate case was opened to deal with Young’s estate assets. Korvick was in charge of both. In February 2011, she named Mangiero the personal representative of the estate, meaning that he was responsible for paying creditors – including himself, Romano and six lawyers – then distributing any remaining assets to Young’s beneficiaries, per the will. (Florida law allows a guardian to serve as a personal representative.)

In July 2011, Mangiero filed an inventory listing the assets in the estate: about USD6,000 in cash and 1,884 paintings, for which Mangiero gave an estimated fair-market value of USD1 apiece. But the debts – about a half a million dollars – far surpassed that. Mangiero then successfully petitioned Korvick to reopen the guardianship case. Mangiero’s attorney explained at a court hearing that by doing so, the lawyers and guardians stood to be paid before other creditors (Young also owed Medicaid over USD100,000). Only after the estate’s debts were satisfied would the beneficiaries stand to inherit anything. Mangiero in court filings also asked that the guardians and lawyers be paid in artwork and eventually proposed that they choose pieces worth twice the amount they were owed to offset dealer commissions should they place the work with a gallery.

Korvick agreed and required an appraisal. But the guardians and lawyers did not immediately split up the art because, as Mangiero testified in a lawsuit later filed by the Lovests, a formal appraisal could have cost tens of thousands of dollars. He opted instead to hold on to the collection, hoping a “white knight” would appear and buy it. The case fell dormant for years.

Leon Rolle continued to work with Mangiero, facilitating the occasional art sale. According to court filings and Mangiero’s own testimony, they fielded five offers to sell the collection for USD700,000 to USD3.7 million. But, according to court transcripts, Mangiero said either the offers were never formalized or he objected to the proposed deal structure – a down payment of a few hundred thousand dollars plus a percentage of unspecified profits over time. Rolle kept the Lovests informed of such developments. They still expected that Mangiero would eventually find a buyer and the art would sell for millions. It would have to sell for at least USD1 million to cover the debts owed to the guardians and lawyers.

At the Rolles’ house in 2018, Young’s friends reminisced about his funeral. Young wouldn’t have wanted anything too fancy, so they dressed him in a linen shirt. A blue one. His favourite colour. Eddie Mae Lovest remembered seeing him: “Purvis, you looked good!”

“Somebody’s doing a huge show for Purvis in Venice,” Leon Rolle said. That would be the Venice Biennale – the prestigious every-other-year art fair during which Young’s work was shown in May, at a satellite exhibit. What this signified, according to the New York Times, was that “the self-taught artist who lived and worked so far from the rarefied world of contemporary art is now at its very centre.”

Paris was the place Young had always dreamed of going. Leon remembered Kravitz telling Young that because he didn’t fly, as soon as he got healthy, “‘I’m going to put you on a Winnebago to New York! Then put you on the QE2′” – the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship – “‘and send you to Paris! And have a show for you!’ But Purvis never could get healthy.”

“If I ever got a lot of money, I’m going to take him there, to his resting place,” Lovest declared. “Until then, he’s gotta stay inside.” She has his ashes at home.

“One day,” Sharon said, a smile spreading across her face, “We’re all going to make the trip for Purvis to go to Paris!”

“Yeah!” Lovest agreed. “And say, ‘Purvis, this is it! You made it!’ “