Thursday, February 02, 2017

Artist Spotlight: Benny Andrews (1930–2006)

For Benny there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me. I can see him now: thinking, speaking, articulating what needs to be done and in the next few moments trying to make real what he had been contemplating. He was honest to a fault, and I think it was his determination to speak the plain truth that shaped his demand for justice and social integrity. He never aligned with any political group, but would offer the full weight of his support to anyone he thought was standing for truth.... 
 – John Lewis, Congressman and civil rights leader 
Andrews at Queen's College, 1997. © Benny Andrews Estate
Benny Andrews’s long and prolific career is eloquently synthesized in Lewis’s account of the artist’s character. His commitment to both art and activism manifests in the many series, paintings and drawings he created. Recently exhibited at the Georgia Museum of Art in “Storytelling: The Georgia Review’s 70th Anniversary Art Retrospective” and soon to appear in “Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection,” the truthfulness and impact of Andrews’s work (both inside and outside of the art world) has not gone unnoticed. It is our honor to exhibit pieces by Andrews twice within just a couple of months. His lifelong dedication to art and activism is an important reminder of why we create, promote, and invest in art.

Benny Andrews, Circle Study #2, 1972. © Benny Andrews Estate
Born and raised as the son of sharecroppers in Plainview, Georgia, Andrews was one of ten children. The first in his family to graduate from high school, he went on to graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1958 after he served as a staff sergeant in the Korean War. Upon finishing school, Andrews moved to New York City. After spending a few years working in the city, Andrews received an invite from Bella Fishko to become a member of the Forum Gallery. His first New York solo show was mounted later that year, and he began meeting artists such as Bob Thompson, Jacob Lawrence, and George Segal (three artists whose work can also be found within the Georgia Museum of Art’s galleries.) Representation with Forum projected Andrews into the New York art scene, and his introduction to other artists became integral as he encouraged others to protest and oppose acts of discrimination from New York’s leading art institutions.

At once exhibiting an interest in abstraction, surrealism and figuration, Andrews’s work has a unique way of achieving unification despite its pastiche-like quality. While he may paint a large surrealist landscape (i.e. Circle Study #11) in one stroke, he creates a mixed-media portrait in the next. On view in “Expanding Tradition” is Poverty (America Series), which is composed of oil and graphite on paper with painted fabric collage. Seen in videos chronicling his process, Andrews roams the archives of his studio, drawing not only inspiration from the works that line the walls but oftentimes cutting figures or images out of past canvases themselves. This method of creation reads in the collage-like nature of his product, a remarkable blend of textures, colors, and, ultimately, of experience. Of his incorporation of fabric, Andrews says in American Vision (June/July 1992), “Where I am from….We wear rough fabrics. We actually used the burlap bagging sacks that seed came in to make our shirts. These are my textures.”
Benny Andrews, Poverty (America Series), 1990.
© Benny Andrews Estate

Drawing from his rural upbringing, heritage, and the cultural climate of his moment, Andrews’s output of work is extensive, socially critical, political and personal. Politically engaged as Andrews’s work is, however, it cannot be said that his oeuvre exists only for the time in which he experienced and created these representations of poverty, racism, and sexism – the themes in his work remain relevant today and are poignant reminders of the necessary role that artists play in the fight for justice, equality and love.

Sarah Dotson
Publications Intern

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