The Art of Benny Andrews: A 1975 Interview with Phil and Linda R. Williams

The excerpts below are taken from an interview that first appeared in the literary magazine Ataraxia 4, edited by Phil Williams and Linda R. Williams, and based in Madison, Georgia, near where Benny was born and reared. When the interview was taped in June 1975, Benny Andrews had established himself as an artist of the first rank, with solo exhibitions around the country and frequent residencies at colleges and universities.  As a critic, he had become an important voice for black artists.  Now, thirty-five years later, the questions have lost none of their relevance, nor have Andrews’ insights diminished in importance.  With permission from the interviewers, we have made silent edits and some changes in the interview’s order.

AtaraxiaThe sense of “place” seems important in your work. How have your memories of a childhood in Georgia affected your concepts, particularly of art?

Andrews: I left Georgia when I was nineteen, but basically the part that really made the impression on me was when I was about 17 or 18 while I lived in Madison before I went to Ft. Valley State. I think that my impressions were made . . . in other words my interpretations of things—how I saw things—and my ideas about things—had already been formed. Now, when I went away to school and went to other parts of the world, they were sharpened and I got new references in terms of how to do this, but I think your first few years, in my case, up to my 18 years or so . . . . my impressions were formed, and whatever I do is really kind of geared to that. I think the really best way to explain that is that different people have different kind of hair—it’s due to the fact the pores that hair comes out have different kinds of little grooves in them. So, it doesn’t matter what the hair looks like out there, it is how it was formed coming out of the pores. The hair can get older and longer and all that kind of stuff once it’s outside, but it retains the form that comes through the grooves of those little pores. So in a sense, I’m 44 years old now but I really have retained the form of those first 18 years and I think that’s the best way to explain that kind of thing. And it can be different. The hair can get WAY long. It changes out there on the end from what it is at the base of the head, but basically it still is identifiable.

AtaraxiaDo you think there are any advantages, in retrospect, to having grown up in the country?

Andrews: Under normal circumstances I don’t think there are any advantages to being anything. I think there are disadvantages in terms of the values that are placed on certain people coming from certain places and being certain things. I think that if it was healthy, all of us, all our lives, all our environments, are just as important. I think that the problem is that there’s more importance given to some people’s lives, where they came from, who they were, than other people’s. So I think that that’s the kind of thing America, especially since it’s such a diversified country, has always suffered from—we have this unique cross section of people and things. What we need to do is to point that out and encourage it rather than to try and make everybody the same. In a case like mine, and that’s what I’m saying to everybody, I’m going to other parts of the country and try to tell these people how great it would be if they’d be themselves. I’ll just give you an example. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, to give a lecture and stayed there for two or three days and met with people and had an exhibition and all that kind of stuff, and the people there were so apologetic that they were in Bloomington. They’d say they didn’t know a thing about art and that all they had were those stone quarries—and  they have the finest stone quarries in the country if not some of the finest in the world. In Bloomington, Indiana! And they were apologetic and here they were, very unique people and here’s somebody from Georgia telling (them) you have a great tradition and all this kind of stuff . . . and be yourselves. Then I go to Brooklyn and deal with these people in Brooklyn. People in Brooklyn have an inferiority complex in relationship to the rest of the city—from Brooklyn and the Bronx. And here, they’re very unique people. So I don’t think it’s an advantage. I think the advantage is when an individual feels that he or she is unique and tries to enlarge upon that. That’s the advantage. Most people try to form themselves after what they consider to be normal. And the normal, really, is to be yourself. And if you’re in a society where there are a lot of different people, then it’s normal to be different.

Ataraxia: In your autobiography [My First Forty Years] you say you began drawing early. Did you ever think that drawing and painting could be a career, or did the society you lived in make such an idea seem futile?

Andrews: It’s funny, because drawing was the thing I took advantage of to survive, even in elementary school. I found out that I could literally work my way through elementary school . . . that was doing Santa Clauses and Thanksgiving turkeys and all that kind of stuff. And I was getting an advantage, with the other kids, by doing cowboys. I’d do all these cowboys. And then when I went to high school, and since I couldn’t go to school but 4 or 5 months of the year, and I was so far behind in my lessons, and I didn’t get a chance to finish my classes in the spring because I had to plant cotton and in the fall, had to pick it, I had to do something to offset this loss of time in school. So, I drew all the biology and plane geometry projects and everything the teachers asked me to draw. And that, in a sense, got me through school. My drawing had become a necessity. Now I think to draw, but mine was always a reality—it was very functional. So it was not so much to dream of what I would do in the future. I was using it to survive in the present. Now what did happen is when I went to Ft. Valley State College, they were not going to have that kind of thing. I mean, drawing my way through mathematics, etc. If it had not been for the fact I had won a 4-H Club scholarship, I would have just flunked out of there before my two years. But they gave me two years on a 4-H Club scholarship. The Southern Iron Company gave out two scholarships in the state, one for a black person and one for a white person, and I was the black person that won and we were the first two, whoever that white person was, to win these 4-H Club scholarships. They couldn’t afford to throw me out of school because it was such a bad example. So they managed to keep me in school as an example So what I’m trying to say is that actually I always had a kind of reality and a functional reality coming from my drawing because in Madison, at that time, there was no reality for anyone in art. Maybe in the white school—at Madison High—there was the hope or possibility of going into advertising. We never had any discussion of the fine arts or anything like that.

Ataraxia: Racism has been an inescapable part of your life: did the racism you encountered early in life make you more determined to succeed, or was it just an evil to be surmounted in the best way possible?

Andrews: No, no, not to succeed, no. Actually in my case, racism was just one of the many problems I had. I had a class problem, too, you see. My family [was] probably one of the poorest, especially when we were sharecroppers in the county . . . and I’m just talking about Morgan County now. We were probably as poor as could be considered in terms of any kind of money or any kind of things like that. And so we had that problem: We had that problem amongst everybody else. We also had a problem of living in the country; we were not included in the tokenism thing of going to high school, for example. So there were so many things—it was not just to fight being a black person in a white society; it was also to fight being a poor person in a total society—both black and white. For example, there was a very small number of black people that really were allowed to go to high school. So when someone like me came out of the country to go to high school, I had to fight to be one of the small number of blacks allowed to go. My high school class at Burney Street High School [1948] graduated with a record number of students, 39, the total for the entire county. So to me, success has always meant doing what I want to do. I’d never think of success in terms of making money or being famous. I mean, it’s hard to explain, because you almost have to do those two things to do what you want to do. They are a necessity. But I don’t predicate making money and being famous as the most important. I keep trying to do what I want to do, and I’ve been lucky that I make a little money and I get a little attention. And that’s very important for people going into these kinds of professions to understand. You have to want to do the thing in the first place. That’s the most important thing. It’s almost like evangelizing, because if you don’t want to do this and it’s not the most important thing to you, then the other things won’t happen.

Ataraxia: Do you view art primarily as a medium for social intercourse? Is your approach to the power of art generally socialist?

Andrews: No. I’m a very individual person. To me art is something that is very personal. In other words, it’s something that an individual does. If an individual does it well, it is because certain kinds of sublimations come out in that form. And no one can help you do it. In fact, there’s no committee that can ever end up with anything. I am a total individual that way. I very seldom talk about my work because what I paint, draw, or whatever, is so personal in terms of my going about to do it, no one can help me. And once I’ve finished it, it really doesn’t belong to me. It has to stand by itself. It’s a picture and you can see, and if it succeeds then the viewer can see something in it. I don’t really think that art really does that much in terms of any kind of social change. There are individuals who at given times can use whatever they do to effect a little social change. But even that is temporary. And I don’t think any serious artist, and I speak of anyone who practices these professions we call art, could actually sustain any kind of creativity over a period of time if they used it as some kind of social instrument. 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.

Ataraxia: Your “Bicentennial Series” shows your obvious feelings that 1976 will be the year to be celebrated by white America. Would you elaborate on this?

Andrews: I consider a person like me to be very American, very American. That is, a displaced individual, like all of the other people here except the Indians. So whatever America is now, or has actually become like the term “Coke,” America is bigger than this country now. The term “America” really means kind of a conglomeration of people from all over forming this kind of strange thing which is not like being French or English or Japanese, a more definitive type of people. So when it comes time for the 200 year celebration of our being Americans, I felt that due to the entrenchment of certain groups, which was mostly the Anglo-Saxons in the society, it was going to be and it still will be an unfair representation of one group. And also it would be slanted due to the problems that this particular dominant group have in dealing with contemporary things, much less having to deal with black people and other ethnics and minorities. They (the ruling Anglo-Saxons) have always had a problem dealing with contemporary things. The Bicentennial will mostly be of the past, something like at least 50 years and back. You see that most of it has to do with what the American Legion would like to put out and the VFW and all, with this rejection of the present. So I take on the problem of a black person who would like to express his feelings.  Actually, there are women who should also be involved with trying to express themselves much more so than just what the DAR would like to present women as being in this society. And I think the Polish people and the Irish—and I’m talking about the Irish who still maintain some kind of identification with Ireland—and the Amish. What I’m trying to say is that America really consists of a much more diversified group, and while I might be able, and I think that the black people have probably been able to make their presence as a dissident minority much more obvious in this country, I think that frankly a lot of the other groups should do that, too. So when you talk about my thing about the Bicentennial, I would like to see other groups do it and they should do it. And I say that my Bicentennial Series will have hope in it, too. It will have Utopia (the sixth and last large canvas, as yet uncompleted) and it would not all be negative. And also my Bicentennial Series does not deal only with race. That’s very important to point out. It deals with what occupied me during the times I was working—and I’ve mentioned this before, that I have been involved with a lot of the women’s groups and the prisons and have also learned a lot from them. I mean I didn’t realize, too, that they had been so discriminated against. It also deals with Sexism, and my fifth one deals with War—not the Vietnam War or the Korean War—just war.

Ataraxia: There has been much discussion over the term “Black Art.” Is there such a thing, and do you consider yourself a representative of it?

Andrews: Well, the term “black art” is too confining. I mean, I could almost tell you how that came to be. That really came to be because second-string white art critics were sent out to cover these social things in the late ’60s that were taking place in colleges and places putting these exhibitions on. And after a while, the argument kept going and some of the white critics started asking, “Is there any reason why these exhibitions should be? And why should they be all black?” and they were the ones that controlled the media. And they started asking, “Is there any such thing as black art?” and they started arguing among themselves. No black people ever had any opportunity to discuss it. They started arguing back and forth, and then people like me who were given an opportunity to give lectures at the universities and the museums were immediately challenged with this whole question that they had brought up. And some of the black artists proceeded to try to tell them what it was. But what the black artists should have done is to have had these people who asked these questions explain first: What is Art? You needed the premise. In other words, if you’re going to explain what is black art, what is white art, what is impressionistic art, you need to get clear: What is Art? So you’d know what premise you’re talking from. So these artist people did not demand that kind of premise and they proceeded to make pretzels of themselves trying to explain what black art is. I do think that individuals that are brought up with unique experiences have things that come up sometimes in what they do. I think there is a tall-person experience, I think there’s a fat-person experience, a pretty-person experience, there is a black-person experience and there is an Anglo-Saxon experience. I think that those things sometimes come out in the work that people do. I can do still-lifes and I don’t think anyone would know that a black person did them. I know some white artists that do fantastic paintings of black people. In fact there’s an artist, [Henry] Casselli, from Louisiana, who only paints black people, and people are always surprised he’s white. A lot of people thought Robert Gwathmey, who was white, was black. I’ve always talked about art done by black people. But there is something that comes from your experience. A lot of us would understand it if I would say there is something of a Eudora Welty or Faulkner that comes from their Southern experience, right? But I bet you if Faulkner just told you how much he had enjoyed the taste of a banana and didn’t use any colloquial things, it could have very easily been a description by someone from Utica, New York. But there are other things that he talks about that no one needs to tell you that Faulkner was from Mississippi or Eudora Welty’s from there.  That’s their experience. Well, it’s that way, very often in some of the work done by black people, you get that kind of feeling.

Ataraxia: What should galleries be doing to promote the works of black artists in this country, and why haven’t they done it before?

Andrews: Well, we have to understand the function of galleries up until the present in America. And it’s not just black artists that they haven’t represented very well. First of all, the art gallery structure in this country really caters to a small group of people that basically are very esoteric. It’s like a bond market or a collateral market: it has an underpinning of money. Unless there is much more participation of people in the society, and unless more painting and sculpture—by a larger percentage of people in the society, and unless more public institutions and communities insist on having more art available through their institutions, then it will stay that way. Because you see as long as just a small group of private people are playing with the values of art and making it certain prices and speculating, then you have to have a financial basis for it to exist. Now let’s get to the specific thing about the black artists. With black artists, there is no money behind them. And if there’s no money behind them, then there is no way to jack these prices up and make all these kinds of artificial things. For example, if you do a little thing on paper, pen and ink on paper, then the difference between it costing $35 and $500 has to do with what kind of collateral importance you are able to give it. And unless there’s some money back of it like a pawn shop—which would be an art gallery—that will give you X number of dollars for that piece, it doesn’t have any value. For example, if you buy a Rolls Royce or Cadillac, you are guaranteed a certain amount of money if you want to go back and sell it. If you buy another kind of car, you are guaranteed less trade-in money. Well there’s almost no trade-in value in black artists’ work. Well, art has the same kind of reason to exist. So black artists do not have that kind of trade-in thing. So someone can have the painting of a black artist on the wall and while they might have even paid $500 for it, they don’t have $500 on the wall. You can have a Picasso on the wall and you have whatever you said you paid for it. And you can take your little Picasso down and go to the bank and get some collateral on it or you can go back to a dealer or sell it. So this is something that is very important to understand. And I go back to the statement that unless America becomes much more interested in the output of the creative people, like painters and sculptors, then you’re going to continue to have this little group that will dictate through Time magazine and through the art publications what art is and what art isn’t. And while black artists like me make it more obvious that we’re being left out, really most artists are being left out.

Ataraxia: In a day when Rothko, Kline, and De Kooning were idolized, you managed to maintain your individuality. When you were at the Chicago Art Institute, were you ever pressured to get into abstract expressionism?

Andrews: Oh yeah, well the entire school and school system was directed to abstract expressionism. There were 10 or 12 fellowships given and all of the school’s exhibitions and then the different clubs like Momentum, and the fraternities, the Deltas, were directed toward abstract expressionism and all of the art publications, like Time and Life, so all that pressure to work abstract was directed toward the student who wanted some kind of acceptability. The kind of things I did were then really very genre, and I say today if it was possible to put people in jail or to really kill them, that art historically would have done that to people who painted realistically at that time. It was considered the most subversive thing there was. I’m serious! They’d say, “How do you work?” and I’d say I paint people and things. And it was almost like you said, “I commit burglaries,” and they’d just call the police as if they saw you running off with a stereo. It almost got to the point where you were considered to be abnormal or something was wrong with you or you had bad breath. And of course as far as the abstractionists go, I had no connections with them. I had no identification with that. BUT, it’s very important for me to explain that by seeing their work and reading about what they claimed they were doing, it enabled me to open my work up. And in fact, even today, I start out a work, working abstractly. I have never ended up with a painting that was abstract that I liked, so I have no abstractions that I keep. But any time I start work, I start out with abstract forms because if I start out working realistically, my problem is that I usually become too preoccupied with realism. The technique of painting realistically in terms of looking like a photograph is an easily achieved thing. It just requires patience and time. It’s a skill. So the problem is actually to keep your work open. I always give examples of still lifes by Cezanne, and Picasso and Chardin . . . they all do still lifes. And they do the same thing, right? Apples and oranges and everything. And it’s not that they’re doing apples and oranges. It’s what those individuals are able to do to those apples and oranges differently. I’ve always felt that the “art” of art is really the abstract part of it. The art of an Andrew Wyeth is really the abstract quality not the photographic part. The art of it is whatever abstractly comes out to you. The art is what goes beyond the image in whatever you are able to conjure up in the mind of the viewer. So Rothko and people like that opened my mind up.

Ataraxia: Your technique of combining oil and collage has drawn much comment. How did you originate this, and does it still serve your needs for expression?

Andrews: The thing is that my existence has always been schizophrenic: coming out of rural Georgia and going into what is considered to be a very sophisticated thing like the art world. And the problem is to hold on to your identity but not to deny what you can learn in this profession. Because most of the people, if they don’t get art training, end up being so narrow that they just close themselves out. In 1957 or so, I was in Chicago at the Art Institute and I wanted to paint something about the janitors. In order to paint something real to them, I decided to use the things that surrounded them. They were always sitting in the toilets, because whenever we’d spill some paint, they would grab a mop and go running out there and mop it up, then they’d go back and sit in the toilets. They had all these little half-pint bottles so they’d be down there drinking. And I always talked with them because they were the kind of people I came from, they were like my relatives. I was one of the nine black people in school at that time. So I started putting the paper towels and things on the canvas and what it did was that all of a sudden it broke up anything I was doing. In other words, I couldn’t make it slick. Because when you’re working in oil, collage is a foreign object. Unless you’re going to fool the eye, you have a relief, then you just have to deal with it. It is something that never works. So in using my collage, it was like retaining some of what I considered to be the best things of my past, and then using oil would be to take advantage of these things I was learning. And so I’ve always worked with collage and very often they don’t work; I never try to fool the eye. Collage serves my purpose because it keeps me off balance. I think that anyone who tries to be creative, and that could be a business person, a basketball player, or a painter, must always find ways to keep (oneself) off balance. When you start knowing too much what you’re doing, then you become a reproducer. And when you become a reproducer, you don’t even stay as good as you are. So in my case, using collage keeps me off balance.

Ataraxia: What artists of the past have you most admired?

Andrews: In my case, I admire certain people for certain things. I realize that no artist really fully states anything. In other words, I like Vermeer for the light that he gets in his work. I like the audacity of a Franz Kline in his paintings like “Crosstown.” I like what Matisse is able to get between two black lines. In other words, if he draws a nude figure, it’s not so much the lines outside but it is the feeling of the flesh that is created in the white that’s in between those two lines and that outside of those two lines is this negative space. And so I look at artists not as a total thing, but I look for things that I can learn from them in terms of detail. I like the painting quality of a Rembrandt. But I don’t think there’s that much audacity in Rembrandt—like in Franz Kline.

Ataraxia: What advice would you give a young artist?

Andrews: I don’t know if you can do this as easily as I’d like to imagine, but the first thing is to try to get to accept that you really want to do this. And then to try and get to know who you are and what you’d like to express. What are you trying to say? Then to go about the business of trying to enlarge upon what you are trying to express. And to proceed to work on that. If you’re doing what you feel you want to do, and you’re trying to enlarge upon from your conscience and sticking with your decisions about what you’re trying to say, then that’s it. That’s success. You’re already successful and whatever happens to you after is just icing—or de-icing!