Former Paul Kessler Gallery.
Benny Andrews (1930-2006), one of the most important African-American artists and art educators of his generation, was given his first one-man show where? New York? Paris? Chicago? Atlanta? No. His work was first spotlighted here in 1960, when the house was owned by 38-year-old Paul D. Kessler and the first floor was operated as the Paul Kessler Gallery. At the time, Andrews, a native of Plainview, Ga. (near Madison), and an alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was newly settled in New York and making acquaintances of artists with Cape connections. “Because of his friendship with Red Grooms and other members of Provincetown’s Sun Gallery [393 Commercial Street], he looked forward to experiencing the artistic environment he associated with this summer resort,” J. Richard Gruber wrote in American Icons: From Madison to Manhattan, the Art of Benny Andrews, 1948-1997. His debut was greeted enthusiastically. The Advocate‘s (anonymous) art critic wrote on 14 July 1960 about the 6-foot-9-inch-tall painting Seder that it “embodies the subject with a new vitality and a new concept. A straightforward use of paint makes the canvases turbulent and forceful.” It was the beginning of a long relationship between Andrews and Kessler.
“I would go up and spend a week there with him,” Andrews recalled to Gruber. “Sometimes I would take my family. We would rent a cottage and it would be more like a vacation. I was able to meet many different artists there. All of the artists were preparing to return to New York. It seemed that it was always about preparing to come back to New York for the fall.” What distinguished Andrews in the Provincetown art scene of the time was not that he was African-American, but that his paintings and collages were representational, in an era when Abstract Expressionism was ascendant. “My work was never placeable,” he acknowledged proudly. In Andrews’s New York Times obituary, Benjamin Genocchio described him as a “figural expressionistic painter.”
Mr. Andrews was a vivid storyteller, using memories of his childhood in the segregated South to create narrative-based works that addressed human suffering and injustice. Over his lifetime, his social concerns ranged from the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement to the Holocaust, poverty and the forced relocation of American Indians.
His paintings and drawings do not fit easily into one art historical tradition. They sometimes resemble the anti-Modernist American Scene paintings, though with a lyrical, almost decorative stylization that draws upon Surrealism and Southern folk art.
That Kessler should stake his gallery’s fortunes to lesser-known, emerging artists reflected a deliberate philosophy. At the time he opened the gallery in 1959, he adopted the motto: “Art to live with for the young collector.”
It is striking in retrospect that Kessler not only gave Andrews a start, but also consistently featured the work of women artists, who struggled then — as now — to be recognized in a world dominated by men. Among those given one-artist shows at or represented by the Paul Kessler Gallery were Sally Michel (1902-2003), an alumna of the Art Students League and, as it happened, the wife of Milton Avery; their daughter, March Avery; Lena Gurr (1897-1992), an alumna of the Educational Alliance Art School and the Art Students League; JoAnn Stover (1931-2009), who also studied at the Art Students League; May Heiloms (1906-1996); and Erin Libby.
Before the addition of shed dormers, 108 Commercial Street was a classic three-quarter Cape cottage. The photo, by Josephine Del Deo, was taken for the Massachusetts Historical Commission Inventory of 1973-1977.
Kessler’s gallery was also where a memorial exhibition was held in 1979 of the works of the painter Kenneth Stubbs (1907-1967). The gallery was still operating in 1980, if not longer. Kessler sold the property in 1997 to Peter F. Demers. I’m assuming (until I hear otherwise) that it was Kessler who added the shed dormers to what had been, at least through the mid-1970s, an unaltered three-quarter Cape cottage. In 2011, the artist Steve Lyons opened what he called the Front Steps Gallery at 108 Commercial. “It’s not really a gallery, but the front steps of his home, where his art is on display and for sale,” the One New England website explained.
Alan Poul, the executive producer and a director of the HBO series Six Feet Under and The Newsroom, purchased the house from Demers in 2014 for $960,000, according to town records. He joins other Hollywood figures who have alighted in the West End, including Ryan Murphy, at 27 Commercial Street and 76 Commercial Street; Michael Lombardo, at 18 Commercial Street; and Kevin Huvane, at 34 Commercial Street.
Poul’s marriage in 2017 to Ari Karpel at the Pilgrim Monument was a singular event, with Armistead Maupin assisting in the ceremony. (Poul is an executive producer and director of the Netflix series Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.) “Just imagine it,” Steve Desroches wrote in Provincetown Magazine. “The monument that commemorates the landing of the Mayflower in Provincetown and the Pilgrims, with their puritanical ways, will host a gay Jewish wedding. Maupin, whose family claims to be descended from William Bradford, chuckles at just how things change.”
¶ Last updated on 13 September 2018.
Left: An advertisement in The Advocate on 19 August 1965, courtesy of the Provincetown Public Library. Right: A sign for Steve Lyons’s Front Steps Gallery in 2014.
For further reading online
Benny Andrews Estate website.
“Benny Andrews, 75, Dies; Painted Life in the South,” by Benjamin Genocchio, The New York Times, 12 November 2006.
“Sally Michel Avery, 100, Illustrator and Artist,” by Roberta Smith, The New York Times, 26 January 2003.