Benny and sister Val, c. 1934
Benny Andrews is born on November 13, 1930, in Plainview, Georgia, a farming community three miles from Madison, to George and Viola Andrews. He is one of ten children. George is a sharecropper and self-taught artist.
Andrews begins working in the fields as a young child. He also attends Plainview Elementary School, a one-and-a-half room log cabin built by Plainview's African American community.
Benny Andrews, c. 1947
Although education past the seventh grade is severely discouraged in the sharecropping system, Andrews’ mother, Viola, determined that her children will make it through high school, works out an arrangement in which Andrews will attend school when it is not possible to work in the fields.
Andrews at Fort Valley State College
Andrews is the first in his family to finish high school. With a small scholarship from the 4-H Club, Andrews attends Fort Valley State, one of the three black state colleges in Georgia. He gravitates to the school's small art department, but struggles academically.
Andrews in the US Air Force
With the end of his scholarship, failing in almost every class, and frustrated by the lack of opportunity to study art, Andrews enlists in the US Air Force in July 1950. During his service, he uses his Air Force salary to support his mother and youngest siblings. He serves for the entire duration of the Korean War, attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant and receiving an honorable discharge in July 1954.
Andrews in class at the School of the Art Institute
After the war, funding from the GI Bill enables Andrews to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite his work in the art department at Fort Valley State, he arrives at school with little formal training.
Andrews later recalled that his arrival at the Art Institute was revelatory because it was both his first time in an art museum, and his first time in a city or cultural facility without segregation.
Drawing from Benny Andrews sketchbook, 1955
In school, Andrews develops his technical drawing and painting skills and broadens his knowledge of art history and design. To complete the requirements of his BFA degree, he also enrolls in academic evening classes at the University of Chicago. Outside of class, he explores the city of Chicago, drawing the people and places he encounters, and finds a side job sketching live music performances in Chicago’s jazz scene.
Boris Margo teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1958
Andrews’ interests are often at odds with the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism that heavily influence the School of the Art Institute's curriculum. He finds encouragement with instructor Boris Margo, who pushes Andrews to pursue his own style and subject matter. In his final year, Andrews begins incorporating roughly collaged material into his painting, a technique he will continue throughout his career.
Benny Andrews on the Lower East Side, New York, 1958
In July, Andrews graduates and leaves for New York City and joins Mary Ellen Jones Smith. That summer Smith gives birth to their first child, Christopher. Andrews finds an apartment for the family at 130 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side. Andrews paints at home and cares for the baby while Smith works as a secretary.
Benny Andrews with sons Christopher and Thomas at the Cloisters, New York, 1962
Smith gives birth to their second child, Thomas, and she and Andrews marry. The family moves to an apartment in Greenwich Village. For additional income, Andrews works in the Christmas card division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Andrews on sculptor George Segal's New Jersey farm, 1963
In 1960, Paul Kessler gives Andrews his first solo show at his gallery in Provincetown, MA, and in 1962, Bella Fishko invites him to become a member of the Forum Gallery in New York, mounting a solo exhibition of his work that same year.
As Andrews establishes himself in New York, he meets members of the city’s diverse artist community, including Red Grooms, Bob Thompson, Mimi Gross, Lester Johnson, Naim June Paik, George Segal and Jacob Lawrence.
Andrews at his 1964 solo exhibit at The Forum Gallery. Photo Credit: Marvin Bolotsky
Andrews and Smith’s third child, Julia, is born, and the family moves to a loft studio on Beekman Street, near the Brooklyn Bridge. The Forum Gallery mounts another solo exhibit of Andrews' paintings, and Andrews, with funding from a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, returns to rural Georgia, where he reconnects with family and creates a group of works he titles Autobiographical Series.
Alice Neel's lithograph, Benny Andrews, 1978. Courtesy of the Estate of Alice Neel
Despite initial resistance, the Autobiographical Series is shown at Forum in 1966; it is Andrews last exhibition with the gallery.
Andrews and painter Alice Neel have a two-person exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They form a lifelong friendship. Neel paints Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews in 1972 and creates a lithograph portrait of Andrews in 1978. Andrews completes his Portrait of Alice Neel in 1987.
Andrews teaching in the South Bronx, 1967
Andrews begins teaching drawing and painting at the New School for Social Research in New York and the Jewish Community Center in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1966, and through an arts initiative in the South Bronx in 1967. In 1968, he begins teaching at Queens College in the SEEK program, which offers academic support for underserved students. He will continue to teach at Queens College for the next three decades.
Founding members and staff at the Studio Museum's opening on September 24, 1968. Invisible Americans would be just its second exhibition. Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem
In October 1968, the exhibition The 1930's: Painting and Sculpture in America opens at the Whitney Museum. The show, which includes over 80 artists, completely excludes African American artists. In response, on November 17, Andrews, Faith Ringgold, Henri Ghent, and others picket the museum and mount Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the 1930s at the newly opened Studio Museum in Harlem.
Benny Andrews' Did The Bear Sit Under a Tree, 1969
In January, a group of artists meet at Andrews’ studio to organize the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) to protest the upcoming exhibition Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for its exclusion of Harlem residents and artists from the exhibition and its planning. The BECC pickets the museum and encourages a boycott of its opening reception.
Andrews lecturing at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1970. Photo credit: Betsy Gallantain
In April 1969, Andrews and Henri Ghent meet with officials from the Whitney Museum of American Art to begin negotiations between the museum and the BECC over policies regarding discrimination against black artists. Despite initial progress, Andrews and more than a dozen other African American artists drop out of the Whitney's 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America in protest over the show's total lack of African American curators.
Andrews in his studio with No More Games, 1970. Photo credit: Rudolph Robinson
In 1970, Andrews’ painting The Champion (1968) is included in The Afro-American Artist: New York and Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which is co-organized by the National Center for Afro-American Artists; The Museum of Modern Art purchases No More Games (1970), and Andrews has a solo show at at the Acts of Art Gallery (ACA), a Black-owned gallery in New York City.
Andrews also begins a lifelong connection with the MacDowell Colony artist residency when he is awarded his first fellowship with them in 1973.
Andrews with his mother, Viola (center) and Civil Rights leaders John Lewis (far left) and Julian Bond (right) at Bond's home, 1975.
Between 1970 - 1975, Andrews creates his Bicentennial Series, a six-year cycle in which each year is dedicated to the production of one monumental painting. He plans the series as a preemptive response to what he rightly assumes will be the exclusion of African American history and identity in the upcoming celebrations for the 1976 American Bicentennial.
In 1976, Andrews and Mary Ellen Jones Smith separate, and Andrews moves to a loft on 26th St.