“I don’t really think that art really does that much in terms of any kind of social change. . . . I think it always remains a selfish outlet for the individual. And even though they’ve thought up kinda nice words for people who try to be creative, the truth is, that if you try to be creative, you really have to be a very selfish, ego-centered person who has this ego to believe that if you do an apple it will convey something that the millions of people who paint apples all the time do not.”
Benny Andrews (1930-2006) was born in rural Georgia and devoted his career to championing African Americans and their stories. In 1948, Andrews graduated from high school and with a 4-H Club scholarship enrolled in Georgia’s Fort Valley State College. He joined the United States Air Force, served in the Korean War, and attained the rank of staff sergeant before receiving an honorable discharge in 1954. With funding from the GI Bill, Andrews enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1958, he completed his bachelor of fine arts degree and moved to New York City.
In New York, Andrews lived on Suffolk Street, befriended other Lower East Side figurative expressionists that included Red Grooms, Bob Thompson, Lester Johnson and Nam June Paik, and continued to develop his “rough collage” technique that often combined rugged scraps of paper and cloth with paint on canvas. As Andrews explained, “I started working with collage because I found oil paint so sophisticated, and I didn’t want to lose my sense of rawness.” By the 1960s, Andrews mastered this technique, and in 1962, Bella Fishko invited Andrews to become a member of Forum Gallery, which gave him his first New York solo exhibition. Additional solo exhibitions followed there in 1964 and 1966. In 1965, with funding from a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, Andrews traveled home to Georgia and began working on his Autobiographical Series. In 1971, The Studio Museum in Harlem presented the first works completed of The Bicentennial Series. In 1975, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta presented four subseries from The Bicentennial Series; the exhibition traveled to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum in Ithaca, NY and the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston.