Andrews often conceived of his work as parts of larger series. These bodies of work may include sketches, works on paper, painting studies and larger masterworks. Themes range from the biographies of John Lewis, W.W. Law, and Langston Hughes, to the Trail of Tears and Dust Bowl migrations, and to personal relationships, like The Autobiographical Series, and Women I Have Known. This page is dedicated to one of his earliest and longest, The Bicentennial Series, which was a six year cycle, begun in 1970 in anticipation of the American bicentennial of 1976. Each year was dedicated to the production of a single monumental painting, with dozens of drawings and painting studies made in the planning process.

 
 
 

"The Bicentennial Series, 1970 - 1975"
From the essay by Holly Veselka

 
Surrealism can get out hand real fast, but then the black experience is so ridiculous that surrealism is the best way to express it. I’ve seen the same kind of work coming from prison artists. To get through an oppressive real life, the artists have to live a fantasy life.
— Benny Andrews
 

Benny Andrews began conceptualizing the Bicentennial Series in 1969, a time when the artist himself was deeply committed to political activism. ... After reading several New York Times articles covering Nixon’s Bicentennial Commission and its plan for America’s Bicentennial, Andrews realized that the celebrations would be organized by institutions similar to those he had been protesting in New York. In a 1975 interview with Diane Weathers for Encore Magazine, Andrews explained, “By 1970, … the government had already planned to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars to bicentennial projects. For white America, the full spectrum of their lives would be shown—everything from Washington’s crossing the Delaware to abstract expressionism. But for Black people, the emphasis would be on restorations of the Old Slave Mart, country churches, and slave cabins. There would be those typical capsulated histories of great ‘Negro firsts,’ and that would be it. The only statement made that would represent us as a group would be that once we were slaves, but now we’re not.” Afraid that the American Bicentennial would omit the voices of contemporary African Americans, Andrews decided to create his own vision of America, producing one major, monumental work per year leading up to the 1976 Bicentennial. In his journal, Andrews described this project as “a Black artist’s expression of how he portrays his dreams, experiences, and hopes along with the despair, anger, and depression to so many other Americans’ actions.”

Circle, 1973

Circle, 1973
oil and collage on canvas
10 x 24 ft


Sexism, 1974

Sexism, 1974
oil and collage on canvas
10 x 24 ft.


Utopia, 1975

Utopia, 1975
oil and collage on canvas
10 x 20 ft.


Trash, 1971

Trash, 1971
oil and collage on canvas
10 x 28 FT.
 


War Study #3, 1974

War Study #3, 1974
oil and collage on canvas
35 x 48"

War Study #1, 1974

War Study #1, 1974
Oil and collage on canvas
34 x 25"


Symbols Study #2, 1970

Symbols, 1970
Oil and collage on canvas
8 x 36 ft.