Benny Andrews: A life in portraits

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Benny Andrews: A life in portraits
Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Portrait of the Portrait Painter (Portraits of... Series), 1987, oil and graphite on two canvas panels with painted fabric collage, 80 x 100 x 3/4 inches / 203.2 x 254 x 1.9 cm, signed.

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Benny Andrews once defined his artistic ambition as a desire to represent “a real person before the eyes.” The phrase is the subtitle of a momentous exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Manhattan. “Benny Andrews: Portraits, a Real Person Before the Eyes” brings together 28 of the artist’s imposing depictions of friends, family and artists, the most ever shown together. Made over the course of 35 years with a technique he called “rough collage,” these riveting, eccentric images combine painted motifs with added pieces of canvas and paper, bits of printed fabric and carefully placed fragments of garments.

Andrews (1930-2006) was the son of an impoverished Georgia sharecropper who taught him to draw as a child. The skill became an essential tool that compensated for the school he missed while helping his father. He learned in part by drawing biology and plane geometry projects and whatever else the teachers asked for. After serving in the Korean War, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and felt the pressure to take up an abstract expressionist style. He wanted to paint representationally, even though he disliked the constant refinement that realism entailed.

One of his instructors, Boris Margo, told him to paint what he knew best and cared about. He took out two birds with one stone, fastening on the school’s janitors, mostly African American, and with whom he was friendly.

“They were the kind of people I came from,” he later said. “They were like my relatives.”

In “Janitors at Rest,” Andrews depicted three men on a break; one reading, the other two perhaps talking. To avoid refinement and introduce a certain rawness, the artist dotted the surface with scraps of paper such as janitors might sweep up. It was his first foray into rough collage.

If painting can be said to have a fourth wall — an invisible partition separating subject and viewer — Andrews broke partly through it. His figures don’t quite step off the canvas, but they don’t quite stay on it either; they hover in an interim zone between canvas and viewer, which can be electrifying and disorienting. They feel uncannily alive while being deliberately made works of art. Arms and legs might be cutout pieces of canvas. Most important are the pieces of recognizable clothing his figures wear; hats or at least their brims are another regular detail. These fragments have seen a lot of use, denoting a life lived like the often weary faces.

By the 1970s, Andrews was laying out the components of his paintings one by one on plain white backgrounds, letting the viewer identify the parts and techniques and put their meanings together.

In “Louie” (1977), a man in a wide-brimmed hat and a striped shirt — both fragments of the real thing — occupies nearly half the canvas. He is speaking, holding two little flowers delicately between his thumb and forefinger. In the background is a beautiful tree, its green leaves and brown twisted trunk painted on their own separate piece of canvas. And farther off, a line of what seem to be naked brown men disappears into the distance — a stark image of sorrow that symbolizes a cultural memory of oppression for generations of people of color in the United States.

Several of Andrews’ paintings are not specific individuals, but portray conditions of marginalization, like the emaciated child in “Famine” (1989), holding a beggar’s bowl, whose face is split between an abstract mask and a visage so ravaged it seems ancient. In contrast, “Portrait of Oppression (Homage to the Black South Africans)” (1985), startles with its understatement. We see part of a figure wearing a denim vest, his hands behind his back as if bound. A chain hangs down into the picture, touching his right shoulder. His face, which is invented, is calm and sensitive. He looks like he could be related to Norman Lewis, the American abstract painter whose debonair portrait greets us near the entrance.

All of Andrews’ portraits are notable for their tenderness, especially those of the people to whom he was closest. In “Portrait of George C. Andrews” (1986), his father relaxes in a red easy chair wearing a tobacco-colored work shirt and a newsboy cap. The wall beside him is unlike anything else here: It’s covered with colorful objects suggesting little paintings, toys, fishing flies — an accumulation of artistry and passion.

It is also worth noting that the artists he admired and depicted — Alice Neel, Howardena Pindell, Ray Johnson, Nene Humphrey (who was also his wife) — seem especially at peace. The joy of being both an artist and a subject is palpable in “Portrait of the Portrait Painter” in which an artist (probably Andrews) sits opposite a beautifully dressed woman; an untouched canvas lies between their feet — on more bare canvas. The scene is suffused with pleasure and anticipation.

In the end, Andrews took Margo’s advice to heart, depicting what he knew and cared about, which — not to oversimplify — came down to art, politics and people: his loved ones and fellow artists as well as human suffering and social injustice, the issues behind his activism. Eventually he portrayed his world and his values, which may be the most you can ask of any artist.

'Benny Andrews: Portraits, a Real Person Before the Eyes'

Through Dec. 23 at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 100 11th Ave., Manhattan, New York, (212) 247-0082,

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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