Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: May 1, 2012

May 1, 2012

Karl Benjamin

Karl Benjamin, the last living member of the original Hard Edge painters, has been an influence on the art scene for over 60 years. We are always thrilled to have a Benjamin in our sales, but having five from three different decades is truly a rare occurrence.

In Yellow Landscape (1953), Benjamin’s strong composition, bold color, and sublime spacial arrangement is matched only by his subtle surface texture. V. S. from 1960 is a more minimalist painting with delicious colors and the kind of intuitive composition that made the four Hard Edge artists famous. #7 from 1977 has a complexity that fools the eye into believing that it is seeing movement and layering.  #19from 1978 is a profound statement on color and order which again, using optical illusion, gives the viewer a sense of depth and perspective. #14 from 1965 has all the hallmarks of the Hard Edge School. In fact, this could just as easily be by Hammersley or McLaughlin. By the mid 1960’s, the thick blocked bands of pure color all compactly fitting within a square composition epitomized the movement.

LAMA had the rare opportunity to interview Karl Benjamin about these particular works in the auction. Please read below.


Paul Des Marais: Can you tell us about your time as a teacher? I read somewhere that when you were forced to teach more art in the classroom, you gave the students crayons and said, “Just fill up the space with pretty colors and don’t mess around.” Soon afterwards you started painting on your own.

Karl Benjamin: I was interested in the pictures that the kids were doing. Like the poetry they wrote (which was more my familiar field at that time) they made beautiful work coming from a very unsophisticated background with little access to current culture – it came from deep within them when they were given permission to free it from preconceived notions of what art was supposed to be. It made me feel like, “If they could do this, so could I.” And that inspired my confidence in painting myself. I knew an art professor at the University of Redlands who was very supportive in what I was trying to do and encouraged me to utilize what was left on the GI Bill in order to have the time to study art. Afterwards I continued to teach elementary school for 30 years and painted every day at home. Eventually, I was asked to apply as a professor of art at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University. By that time I had amassed a sizeable exhibition record. I taught there until retirement.

PD: We’re lucky to have one of your earliest and most stunning paintings, Yellow Landscape (1953). What was your inspiration for this piece?

KB: It’s one of my favorite paintings to this day. It was not a painting of a particular place, it made a particular place. The surreal aspect of the painting was a way station on the way to 20th century painting. To rise above Realism was paying a debt to non-objective painting.

PD: At the time, did you, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin realize the potential impact you could make on the current art scene? Tell us a little bit about that first meeting that led to the “Four Abstract Classicists” show at LACMA in 1959.

KB: Would make, not could make. There are no short answers to this question. We said, “There’s something new here.” A new “style” is too arbitrary a word, as if we were intellectually choosing how to paint. We knew each other’s painting and felt we were kindred spirits even though we were painting independently and had arrived there separately from different backgrounds. But we wanted our work to be shown and for people to see it. Peter Selz was a teacher and he wanted to show this new emerging type of work, so he pulled us together. The work actually all came from very different places inside each of us.

PD: Hammersley used his “hunch” method to paint while Feitelson seemed to draw inspiration from the human body. Did you have a method or process you’d revisit for each painting or was your style more free form?

KB: I was trying to paint like all the new things I was seeing. I’d see an artist that I liked and try to do that kind of painting. This was at the very beginning because I was by myself, not a student. In some paintings, I’d start with charcoal lines on the canvas; sketch, change, and erase until the shapes felt right. There would be an intuitive urge to paint red or pink or whatever; the exact color would decide itself as I mixed it. Then the next color I mixed would be in accordance with the previous one. Some paintings, like the triangles, were series that were expressing a pre-determined idea, although sometimes with randomly chosen placement. The specific shades and particulars of the color were all based on intuition, which ones were right.

LAMA wishes to thank Karl Benjamin and his family for graciously giving us their time and insight.

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I love the more organic,sensuous and flowing hard edged paintings, versus the more rigid Mondrian like vertical and horizontal formats. The warm colors in the painting above give me a feeling of beauty and peace, as in looking at the essence of a landscape. Good honest work ! Thank you Karl.
Gabriel Sencial