ST. PETERSBURG — The fight for equality by people of color in the United States reaches into the art world, too. A trio of exhibitions currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg shines a light on this issue, as well as the larger struggle for equality.
Although it wasn’t planned, the fact that "Benny Andrews: Mix Master," "Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Extraction, 1960s to Today" and "Can I Get a Witness: Photographs by Herb Snitzer" are on display concurrently feels by grand design. African-American artist and activist Benny Andrews was a founding member of the Black Emergency Cultural Council, which sought to increase representation of African-American artists and arts professionals. All of the work in "Magnetic Fields" was made by women of color working in abstraction, many of whom were previously underrepresented. And the selection of Snitzer’s photographs focus on activism and protest.
"Benny Andrews: Mix Master: Collage and Line Drawings From the Collection of Professor Edward J. Littlejohn" is a figuration-based exhibition in the Works on Paper gallery.
Born in Georgia in 1930, Andrews earned his BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1958. He depicted scenes of rural and urban life in America in a style ranging from simple, yet powerfully emotive line drawings to bright and colorful paintings that incorporate his innovative collagist technique. His use of a variety of materials to build the paintings up was groundbreaking. And even while abstract expressionism, minimalism and pop art were in vogue, Andrews was committed to humanist, narrative figuration, although he’d add elements of abstraction and surrealism. He and his peers worked in a style called figurative expressionism.
Peaches (1965) is a prime example. A woman weighs peaches at a fruit stand, wearing a dress that has been built up with some kind of material, giving it dimension and shape. In A Prince (1971), the unfortunate-looking fellow’s nose has been built up so much that it looks as though it might fall off his face. A number of Andrews’ fluid line drawings are also on display, including his own self-portrait.
As an activist, Andrews was a member of the Spiral Group, a collective of 15 artists of color interested in engaging with the civil rights movement through their artwork. This often brought up the question of whether their art had to be political, as there was an expectation by the mainstream that all black art should be.
Andrews went on to form the Black Emergency Cultural Council in 1969 as a reaction to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called "Harlem on My Mind," which excluded black artists and curators. The BECC was also behind the controversy surrounding the Whitney Museum’s 1971 exhibition "Contemporary Black Artists in America," in which 24 of 75 artists dropped out of the show after requests made by the group for more input by black artists was not met by the museum.
The fact that "Magnetic Fields," the only American exhibition of women of color working in abstract art, was only organized by the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, Mo., in 2017 shows that mainstream representation is still a struggle.
By including so many of these accomplished artists, whose birth years span from 1890 to 1980, the exhibition helps to expand the genre of abstraction. There are paintings, sculptures, assemblages and highly conceptual works. Some do have political overtones, while others take inspiration from landscapes, architecture and science. The caliber of work is so high that it’s honestly baffling that some of these artists have been so underserved by major institutions.
The exhibition gets its title from Mildred Thompson’s 1991 triptych inspired by scientific theories of magnetic energy. The painting is alive with energy, in great swirling, swooping colorful lines. Thompson actually has local ties, having been Tampa’s artist-in-residence in the 1970s.
The exhibition also includes Mavis Pusey’s Dejygea, which hasn’t been on display since it hung in that controversial show at the Whitney. The hard-edged, geometric painting inspired by boarded-up buildings is an important piece in the history of abstraction.
Candida Alvarez’s work gives a glimpse of how an abstract artist visualizes things. When she would look out of her 14th-floor apartment in New York City or at the mountains of her native Puerto Rico, she would create a topography of shapes and colors in her mind that she translates into her work, including the 2009 painting Black Cherry Pit.
Tires become a multitude of forms in the hands of Chakaia Booker, whose 2001 sculpture El Gato takes on a feline shape. Booker has used tires since the early 1990s because they invoke a number of concepts, including time and travel, and because rubber can resemble skin and muscle.
Among the more political pieces is Shinique Smith’s big bundle of discarded clothing and toys, 2015’s Bale Variant No. 0012, a comment on overconsumption. One can imagine how cathartic it was for Maren Hassinger to create Wrenching News, a huge pile of twisted shreds of newspaper, which she created in response to Hurricane Katrina. And Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s 1993 painting Racism Is Like Rain, Either It’s Raining or It’s Gathering Somewhere depicts a swirling colorful cloud encroaching on a black background.
The selection of Snitzer’s photographs in "Can I Get a Witness" on display in the gallery near "Magnetic Fields" documents America’s long history of protest. It almost acts as a window to the events that were and are happening while the art from the other exhibits was being created.
Snitzer is a longtime activist for social justice, earning him a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP. He also photographed some of the world’s leading jazz musicians, and he came to have personal relationships with them. One was Nina Simone, who herself was an activist. A rare shot that Snitzer captured of Simone smiling, Nina Laughs, is on display.
When Snitzer relocated to St. Petersburg in 1992, he continued to participate in community activism, and to document local protests. Included in the exhibit are images of the 1996 St. Petersburg protests of the death of Tyron Lewis, which eventually led to a riot. Images of St. Pete Pride and the 2017 Women’s March are also part of the exhibit.
In NAACP, an African-American boy at a NYC street demonstration in 1958 glares at the camera. Fifty-one years later, at a 2009 NAACP march in St. Petersburg, a young African-American girl stares plaintively into the lens, holding a sign under her chin, written in a child’s script, that reads "Hugs, Not Guns."
Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected]