The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents a seminal series of collages and drawings from Benny Andrews’ Bicentennial Series (1970-1976). The series’ six thematic groups that are the basis for this exhibition include the Symbol Series, Trash Series, Circle Series, Sexism Series, and Utopia Series. Within these themes, Andrews reflected on his experience as an African American in the post-civil rights era and during the two hundred year anniversary of the United States of America. At the time series was conceived, it was evident that African Americans had made innumerous significant cultural contributions both locally and nationally, yet their role in shaping American history had been vaguely reported and celebrated. Additionally, the national dialogue surrounding the celebratory attitude of the bicentennial seemed naive and dishonest in light of the social and economic conditions across the country.
As an artist, Andrews sought to change the mostly negative dialog around the black experience in American history and contemporary life. Andrews was also an activist who –among many other achievements– taught art to marginalized youth in prisons and co-founded a movement called the Black Emergency Cultural Commission, which protested the exclusion of African American men and women artists in museums and galleries. Andrews’ progressive activism is evident in his larger collages and smaller pen and ink drawings on display. Collage was Andrews’ medium of choice and it allowed him to represent both repletely and expressively, the trials and tribulations of African Americans and other marginalized groups. Andrews’ foray into collage making coincided with his arrival in New York City’s East Village. The living conditions there during the late 1950s were harsh and the effect that the environment had on the poor and marginalized communities had a profound effect on Andrews. In order to express these hardships, he incorporated rough and materials like burlap into his paintings. The result is a body of work that reveals the toughness and humanity of his subjects.
During the six years that led up to America’s bicentennial, Andrews worked on a major theme each year. There are numerous studies for these themes, which culminated in the creation of six monumental mural sized works. The major work on view in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s exhibition is Circle (1973), a 10 x 20 foot collage of a black man lying spread-eagle, while a predatory bird rips out his watermelon shaped heart. The man is enclosed by circle of women who seemingly cheer on the bird whilst pulling the strings attached to the man’s watermelon heart.
Details are abound in this work including the large foreboding shadows of each figure and the tactile textures of cloth, which make associations to the attire of women from the south. The subject matter might be interpreted as addressing certain stereotypes that white supremacy has used in an attempt to eviscerate black humanity. First, the watermelon is a symbol of racist ideology that originated while black men and women were slaves in America. Additionally, the women who are controlling the man and celebrating in his emasculation addresses the stereotype of Sapphire, a caricature of an African American woman who takes pleasure in committing evil and hurtful deeds. Andrews realized that the plight of black artists and women artists was not dissimilar and after the Circle Series, he started working on the Sexism Series. His use of materials in the War Series is particularly effective in portraying the horror and dehumanization of violent conflicts. Tattered pieces of burlap and rags make associations to the tattered bodies of the soldiers and in some cases depict body bags as is the case in the mixed media piece War Study #3 (1974).
The final component of the series is Andrews’ depiction of a Utopian society. In our current status as a nation so internally divided and facing troubling uncertainty, these images from over thirty years ago are a stark reminder that we’re far from any semblance of a Utopian society. However, the work and life of Benny Andrews is a resounding example of how artists can make a valiant contribution to the national dialog.
Benny Andrews: The Bicentennial Series is on view through January 7, 2017.