A self-proclaimed "people's painter," Benny Andrews created powerful narratives that centered around social injustice, drawing inspiration from his childhood in the segregated South. Throughout the 1960's, his collage works became commentaries on the Civil Rights movement:
“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...”
— John Lewis, Civil Rights leader and congressman
Andrews was one of ten children, and the first of his family to graduate high school. He joined the Army and on the GI Bill, he was able to attend the Art Institute of Chicago - one of the only African Americans enrolled at the time. Putting aside the "sophistication" of oil paint, Andrews opted for the rawness of collage elements. In a folk art style, yet still expressionistic, these collage works are more focused on detail than what is expected from the medium. In addition to everyday materials, Andrews also incorporated burlap sacks into his collages since most of his childhood was spent working the cotton fields with his family.
A CLOSER LOOK
The above artwork entitled Jack J is a portrait of the famous first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, John Arthur "Jack" Johnson. Painted by Benny Andrews in 1970, Johnson's figure is silhouetted against a plain background of whiteness. He stands out boldly in his surroundings; perhaps it was a commentary on having a new black hero in this era of American history. Andrews’ use of collage and painting gives Johnson's figure personality without making him appear crude. The collage elements give the painting physicality, which lends itself to the figure and character of its subject. Johnson proudly and stoically stands upright, gazing out of the painting in a sure and unapologetic manner. The figure dominates most of the foreground, further emphasizing the bold and confident nature of the man depicted. In fact, Johnson was a famous left hand hitter or "southpaw," and Andrews notes this with the weighty, dark, left arm of the boxer taking the foreground of the painting. Similar to a late Rembrandt, the figure's hands are simply suggestions which are brought to life by brushstrokes and color. The translucency and loose painterly nature of the fist prevent the painting from overly focusing on his boxing hand; however, its color and placement in the composition still assert the fist's utmost importance. Juxtaposing the arm and figure this way allows the piece to simultaneous highlight both the character of the man and the legend of his boxing. Andrews’ impressive technical ability and creativity make this a visually engaging piece of art, while his thoughtfulness stages Jack Johnson to be remembered for not just what made him famous, but for who he was.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Benny Andrews did not like titles, he wasn't an African American Artist, an Activist Artist or a Protest Artist - he was an Artist. And he believed that in creating art "...if I do it well enough, because it should be done well, then it will last...because it's more than me. It's about something bigger than I am."
He was constantly involved, not only social causes, but also teaching and arts administration. He taught at the City University of New York, Queens College for thirty years, was the director of the visual arts program for the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as creating an art program in the state's prison system that set a national standard still used today.
These paintings and collages help to remind us of the challenges faced by African Americans during this period in American history, and the brave artists who were able to communicate the conflict, discrimination and overall feelings of liberation and empowerment.
Main image: Mr. America, 1967, oil on canvas, 28 x 24 inches
Quote from John Lewis: the foreword to the 2013 exhibition catalogue "Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven" available for purchase here
Additional information found on the Benny Andrews Estate site here in addition to Michael Brenson, "Review/Art; The Collages of Benny Andrews," New York Times, November 4, 1998. read here as well as his obituary also in the New York Times, November 12, 2006, here
Top: The Offering, 1964, oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 38 1/2 inches, Left: Untitled (Still Life), 1971 oil and collage on canvas, 27 x 24 inches, Right: Flight, 1975, oil and collage on canvas, 18 x 20 inches, Bottom: Landscape, c. 1970s, oil on paper, 13 x 17 1/2 inches