It’s not often that a posthumous exhibition is filled with images that, one after another, bring smiles to the faces of the viewers, but such a show is hanging at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph, Michigan. Andy Sweet, who was brutally murdered at the age of twenty-eight in 1982, was a chronicler of the Miami area known as South Beach, home at that time to a population that was nearly eighty-percent Jewish, including many European Holocaust survivors.
The photographs, dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s, are digital reproductions of Sweet’s test prints showing the Miami that Sweet and his Jewish family called home. Sweet’s negatives and prints were all presumed lost after his murder, but thirty boxes of contact sheets and test prints were discovered in a family storage unit in 2006 and have been lovingly restored by his sister, Ellen Sweet Moss, herself an artist, and her husband, photographer Stan Hughs. Moss also created the Andy Sweet Photo Legacy Foundation, dedicated to increasing awareness of her brother’s work and organizing exhibitions for the remaining images.
As you walk around the room, you are transported to Miami—the colors are vibrant, patterns abound. Sunglasses, nose guards and opaque zinc sunscreen vie with deep leathery tans on the subjects, and there is no lack of Speedos. In one image, “Pool at the Fontainebleau Hotel/Three Men in Lounge Chairs,” a trio of sun worshipers sip cocktails and enjoy the weather. In another, titled “La Dolce Vita,” an elderly but fit man relaxes on a wall, head on his rolled towel, with others on folding lawn chairs on the grass beyond.
The women, though, are the real stars of this show. They pose, clearly flirting with Sweet. In “Loud Dresses,” a group of ladies in an array of bold-printed floor-length dresses form a patchwork of wild patterns in what appears to be a hotel room. In a print titled “Woman in Velour,” a woman of a certain age vogues for Sweet—hair and clothes all the same orange, a white purse dangling from her arm, casually leaning on a closed yellow umbrella. Another image, “Matching Suit/Version Two,” shows a deeply tanned couple side-by-side on the beach, her tie-dyed one-piece a perfect match for his abbreviated trunks. His lips are heavily coated in zinc, giving him the painted white smile of a clown.
There are a few images of non-beachgoers as well—a lovely young Black woman at her cotillion, three young boys on their way to school, and several images of drag performers both in and out of costume, but it is the beach, pool and hotel images that capture the time and place. The sun is shining, the breeze shuffles through the palm fronds, and for anyone viewing this enchanting exhibition, Miami is full of charm, and you are there.
“Andy Sweet’s South Beach” at Krasl Art Center, 707 Lake Boulevard, St Joseph, Michigan, on view through June 4.