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New exhibition highlights collage and drawings by artist Benny Andrews, who balanced art with activism
Benny Andrews, American (1930—2006), Peaches, 1965, Oil and collage on canvas. Collection of Professor Edward J. Littlejohn.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- Artist Benny Andrews used innovative collage techniques to create portrayals of urban and rural life in America, from a woman purchasing peaches in a produce stand to a farmer working in a cornfield. In his groundbreaking 40 years of work, he combined images of people and places with elements of abstract art and surrealism to depict the human condition. Even during the height of Abstract Expressionism and later Minimalism, Andrews maintained total dedication to representation (or figuration).

Andrews was also an educator and activist dedicated to social justice, both in and out of his studio. All these facets of his work are on view in Benny Andrews: Mix Master – Collage and Line Drawings from the Collection of Professor Edward J. Littlejohn, at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg from May 26 to August 26.

His work can also be found in the collections of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The works featured in the MFA’s exhibition range from paintings with dramatic colors that incorporate materials like buttons, paper towels, jeans, a T-shirt and other fabrics, to powerfully simple line drawings.

Andrews, a Georgia native, served in the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War, and then studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1958. His first solo exhibition was held at the Forum Gallery in New York City in 1962. Andrews created and exhibited in New York for more than 40 years until his death in 2006.

In addition to being an artist, Andrews was an educator, administrator and activist dedicated to social justice and increased representation of black artists and arts. He was a founding member of the Black Emergency Cultural Council, formed in 1969 in reaction to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Harlem on My Mind, which excluded black artists and curators. The 75-member group sought to increase representation of African-American artists and art professionals.

He was also a founding member of the figurative painting collective Rhino Horn Group, a group of artists who used figuration – a style of art that clearly references the human form or real objects – to address social concerns. He was a coordinator of the Inner City Roundtable of Youths in New York, and from 1982-84 was Director of the Visual Arts Program, a division of the National Endowment of the Arts.

“In Mix Master we see the artist’s inventive use of collage and materials, the way his experiences in America influenced the scenes in his work, and the balance he struck between activism and his artistic practice,” said Katherine Pill, MFA curator of contemporary art. “We’re grateful that this loan of work from Dr. Littlejohn allows the community to explore the many facets of Benny Andrews’ work.”

The exhibition is comprised of work on loan from Professor Edward J. Littlejohn, an expert in African-American legal history and art collector who currently resides in Sarasota. Dr. Littlejohn is a collector of art by African-American artists, and is a supporter of the Detroit Institute of Art and its Friends of African and African-American Art. He first met Andrews in Detroit in 1990.

Dr. Littlejohn is the founder of the Damon J. Keith Law Collection and Archive at Wayne State University, where he is professor emeritus. He was also a member and chair of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, a member of the Detroit Arts Commission, and chair of the Detroit Board of Ethics.

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