Eric Firestone Loft
4 Great Jones Street, New York, NY
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is pleased to present selections from Benny Andrews' Sexism series as part of That '70s Show at the Eric Firestone Loft. A collaboration between over twenty New York galleries that are invested in scholarship, each organization features artists making work during the 1970s, in an exhibition aimed to create dialogue.
In 1969, Benny Andrews (1930–2006) began reading news coverage of the activities of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, a federally appointed group of organizers charged with planning a series of celebrations and observances for the upcoming 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Knowing that the festivities would reflect the “full spectrum” of white America’s history while Black Americans would be represented only through the narrow lens of slavery, Andrews initiated a series of monumental paintings that came to be known as the Bicentennial Series. The final group comprises five wall-sized paintings, multiple oil-and-collage studies on canvas, and dozens of preparatory ink-on-paper drawings that constitute, as Andrews wrote in his journal, “a Black artist’s expression of …his dreams, experiences, and hopes along with the despair, anger, and depression [in reaction] to so many other Americans’ actions.” Titled Symbols (1970), Trash (1971), Circle (1972), Sexism (1973), War (1974), and Utopia (1975), the final collage paintings embody Andrews’ “feelings and impressions of this place—America.”
With the support of a 1973 MacDowell Colony Residence Fellowship, Andrews began work on Sexism, the fourth group of works in the Bicentennial Series. Throughout his residency, the artist reflected on the plight of the feminist activists that he had met through the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC)—a political group he co-founded that advocated for the inclusion of Black artists and curators in New York City museums. Through his work with the BECC, Andrews formed lasting friendships with several feminist activists including Lucy Lippard, who were likewise seeking adequate representation in the nation’s cultural institutions.
The final Sexism painting stretches across eight canvases totaling ten feet in height and twenty-four feet wide. At center, the figure of a woman standing on a stained mattress and shrouded in a sheet that had previously tethered her to the bed is held aloft on a precarious outcropping of rock surrounded by a lush green island, flowers blooming at her feet. To her left, a procession of floating forms resembling disembodied breasts carry an infinitely receding line of women clad in pastel colors and wide-brimmed purple hats. To her right, sexually explicit topiaries inhabit a fantastical landscape reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510). Conjuring a surrealistic tableau structured by a complex iconography of gendered symbols, Sexism captures the mystique attributed to women for their singular capacities to survive, create, and flourish. As curator Pellom McDaniels writes, Sexism explores Andrews’ “understanding of the institutionalized suppression of women in a male-dominant society and the importance of feminism as a tool to free both women and men from patriarchal hegemony.”