Beloved outsider artist Purvis Young left behind hundreds of paintings and a complicated legal case. 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.
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 $49.95. “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 $1 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 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.
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.
Sitting around the dining room table of Young’s friends Leon Rolle and his wife, Sharon, in December 2018, Eddie Mae and her 35-year-old daughter Taketha Lovest described how Young became a part of their household. Eddie Mae would cook him neck bones, or eggs and grits. He’d slip the kids money for candy and laugh when the little ones knocked over his paint cans. The family would buy him shirts; he’d immediately cut off the sleeves. “You get him some nice pants, he gonna cut ’em,” Taketha said. “He had ugly-lookin’ shoes. You wouldn’t think he had 50 cents to his name.”
Young called Eddie Mae his “common-law girlfriend.” He didn’t drive; the pair would ride their bicycles to pay bills. He treated her four daughters, and eventually her grandchildren, as his own. Eddie Mae chuckled that Taketha was his favorite: “He was clingy to [her].” He’d nod off on their couch watching public television, only to jump awake and start doodling. “I’d raise hell about him getting paint on my forks, my spoons, my refrigerator, my water jugs, my everything!” Lovest remembered. “Lampshades, sofas …” recalled Leon Rolle. “If you sat still long enough, he’d paint on you!”
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 “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. 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 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% 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.
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% 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% of his estate; 1% 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 $6,000 in cash and 1,884 paintings, for which Mangiero gave an estimated fair-market value of $1 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 $100,000). 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 $700,000 to $3.7 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 $1 million to cover the debts owed to the guardians and lawyers.
In 2017, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was working on his first solo album in 14 years, “American Utopia.” He explained in a blog post how he was drawn to a Young painting he saw online: “a head, a face – of indeterminate race and possibly gender – dreaming, meditating, contemplating.” He wanted to use it on the album cover (and eventually did). His emailed request found its way to Rolle, who said he forwarded it to Mangiero. When he didn’t get a reply, Rolle wondered if something was wrong.
Then in early 2018, a gallerist forwarded Rolle an email that he’d received from a Fort Lauderdale man. “I JUST PURCHASED YOUNG’S ESTATE,” it read. Alarmed, Rolle went to the courthouse to check the record. Rolle saw that in spring 2017, Mangiero had again petitioned to take artwork as pay. Korvick issued a new order in which she agreed and dropped the appraisal requirement. Receipts showed that in August and September 2017, seven of the eight attorneys and guardians had divided the artwork (one declined to take any), with Mangiero hanging on to the shares now owned by himself and three other attorneys to try to sell them. As for the separate estate case, Korvick had closed it in February 2018, for inaction.
Rolle left the courthouse angry. He grumbled about coziness between lawyers and judges. (Election records dating to 2000 show that four of the eight creditors, either individually or via their firms, had donated to Korvick’s election campaigns.) The Lovests hadn’t known the art was being split up because, technically, they were only “interested parties” in the estate case, not in the guardianship, so hadn’t received copies of all court filings for the latter.
The family retained an attorney, Kristen Goss, who argued in court filings that the paintings were worth millions of dollars and cited the valuation of the Rubells’ donations and the offers that had been floated. She contended that Mangiero had an “obvious conflict” serving as both a creditor and personal representative of the estate; the heirs had expected him to stand up for them. Stunned that a judge had let the art go without an appraisal, Goss sought to find out where all the pieces had ended up and how much they might have sold for, and to recover some assets for the heirs.
Mangiero countered that the lawyers had gone unpaid for a decade, and he’d spent $200,000 of his own money storing the art, to no avail. While he didn’t truly think the art was worth only $1 per piece – that was just a placeholder, he explained in filings after Goss tried to challenge Korvick’s orders – it wouldn’t garner millions of dollars.
“I have done everything possible in this guardianship to help [Young], to hold those paintings, to try and find buyers,” Mangiero said at a 2018 hearing. He mentioned having contacted Sotheby’s. “I’ve had things out to auction houses. The most they have gotten is less than $1,000 on any one painting. I’ve got emails from them saying, ‘We didn’t want it. It didn’t do good.’ “
Korvick declared that Mangiero had “exhausted all potential sales avenues” and that there was “no market” for the art. There would be hard costs involved in transporting work for sale, and flooding the market could drive down the price, she reasoned. “Everyone would have wanted willing buyers with large monetary offers for the artwork, but this did not happen,” Korvick wrote in her final order in November 2018. The heirs did not have buyers lined up, nor did they have facilities to store the art, she pointed out – and she dismissed Goss’ objections.
Korvick also declared the copyright to Young’s work could go to his estate, allowing it – and potentially his heirs – to collect royalties paid by David Byrne and anyone else seeking to license Young’s images. But unbeknown to the judge, it was too late; the agency that handles such payments told me that Young had sold his copyright before he died to one of his old gallerists.
Goss appealed, arguing that Taketha Lovest’s due process rights had been violated. But the court sided with Mangiero and found that Lovest lacked proper standing to challenge Korvick’s ruling. Goss also filed a complaint in civil court, accusing the eight attorneys and guardians of unjust enrichment, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and malpractice, arguing they’d taken art worth more than they deserved. This past September, the civil court determined that the matter had already been adjudicated in the guardianship court. The legal battle left the beneficiaries empty-handed and possibly on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.
Alex Diaz, a lawyer for Romano (the other guardian) and four attorneys, said, “I’m sure they feel Purvis was a fantastic artist and they believe with conviction his work is special, worth $10,000 for each individual piece – but the record here over the number of years that this has been going on reflects that there is not a market for this. Unfortunately, it went south for everybody.” Mangiero’s attorney in the civil case did not respond to a detailed list of questions. After the ruling, neither the Lovests nor Goss wanted to comment. “They’re tired,” Leon Rolle said. “We ain’t going to get no justice.”
Much of the artwork that Young had left when he died now sits in a warehouse owned by Alan Bluestein, a financial adviser in Fort Lauderdale and an art collector. When Bluestein came across Young’s work, he felt drawn to it. He particularly liked the white horses. In late 2017, he bought a few pieces on eBay. Then the seller emailed a private invitation to visit a warehouse in North Miami, where additional, never-before-seen work by Young would be available. “There was a huge amount in this warehouse,” Bluestein recalled. He picked out a few paintings, then “I asked the guy on my way out, ‘Would you be willing to sell the whole collection?’ “
It turned out that once Mangiero had taken possession of the art granted to himself and three other lawyers, he enlisted a nephew to help sell it, he testified in the civil case. Through the nephew, Bluestein made the deal to buy all of it – about 1,000 pieces. Bluestein had no idea there was a legal dispute over it until he got a call from Goss, demanding to know how much he’d paid. Not wanting to get drawn into litigation, he refused to tell her. Though he testified in the civil case in July, a judge let him keep the figure confidential.
In January 2019, Christie’s Auction House held its fourth annual auction of “Outsider and Vernacular Art.” A 1974 piece by Purvis Young called “Three Jazz Mans,” from Louis-Dreyfus’s collection, had been projected to sell for $4,000 to $8,000. The “price realized” – which is the “hammer price” (the winning bid) plus the “buyer’s premium” (the fee due to the auction house, typically 13 to 25 percent of the hammer price) – was $22,500. Two more of his works sold for $21,250 each, and one for $13,750.
The Christie’s sales are the highest of the 253 Purvis Young sales listed on Artnet, a database that has tracked worldwide auction sales over $500 since 1985 – although LiveAuctioneers.com lists a Young painting having sold for $42,500 in 2013. (This was far from a record for outsider art. A limestone sculpture, “Boxer,” by William Edmondson, sold for $785,000 in 2016.) That said, Young’s works also sell for much less. On a recent day, LiveAuctioneers.com listed 20 works by Young, for $25 to $750.
One major marketplace for outsider art is the Slotin Folk Art Auction, held twice a year in Georgia. Folk art auctioneer Steve Slotin said he would have been interested in the paintings that Young left behind. “There’s not a lack of people who want it,” he explained. “Me and Christie’s fight tooth-and-nail.” Stronger pieces or originals from Goodbread Alley can fetch $10,000 to $30,000, according to Slotin. During his most recent auction in April, he sold 15 of Young’s works, for $1,800 to $12,000.
New York gallerist James Fuentes, who last year organized a solo show of Young’s work, has sold Young’s paintings for about $35,000. He said that Young’s case “defies this elitist logic of scarcity” and that Young’s prolific output was part of his allure. In sourcing his show, Fuentes dealt with six or 10 collectors known to own numerous Youngs but hadn’t heard of any trove of work left after his death. “That’s astonishing,” he said, adding he would have leaped at the chance to see it.
As for Bluestein, he said he’s not selling any of his newly acquired Young works – yet – because he’s sure that “it’s going up in value.”
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 favorite color. Eddie Mae Lovest remembered seeing him: “Goddamn, 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 center.”
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!’ “
Source : Nation Multimedia