Karl Benjamin: West Coast Hard Edge Abstraction, Pt2


Chicago native Karl Benjamin found his way to California to go to college on the G.I.Bill after serving in the Navy during World War II.  With no formal education in art, Benjamin who was an elementary teacher, began working with crayons in the course of developing art lessons for his students’ curriculum. He became enthralled with the way in which colors appeared to change when in juxtaposition with other colors and enrolled in classes at Claremont Graduate School, ultimately earning an M.A. degree in 1960 and developing a serious art practice as a painter who worked rigorously with color.

‘His principal started it all by asking him to add 47 minutes a week of art instruction to the curriculum.“I bought some crayons and paper,” he said. “And the kids drew trucks, trees, mountains. That was boring, so I said, No trucks, no trees. And they said, What should we do? I said the right thing, even though I didn’t have any background in art. I said, Be quiet and concentrate.” – Jori Finkel, Karl Benjamin’s Colorful Resurgence, New York Times, October 7, 2007

In 1960, Benjamin, along with fellow painters Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley received national attention from an exhibition “Four Abstract Classicists”in San Francisco and  Los Angeles.  Critic and show organizer Jules Langser coined the phrase “hard-edge painting” in describing their works, in which “color and shape are one and the same entity”.  Hard Edge’s crisp and cool abstraction work was seen by the art-world of the early ’60s as a viable alternative to the hot and emotive abstract expressionism that the New York painters generated.

‘It was a loose movement, according to Mr. Benjamin. “We never really thought we were alike,” he said in his studio, facing a densely patterned painting with a bright, Skittles-like palette. “We just knew we were not Abstract Expressionists.”

Karl Benjamin continued throughout his life to balance his teaching career and his painting practice. He saw a resurgence of interest in his work while in his early 80’s when exhibitions were mounted in multiple museums and galleries in Southern California.

“The scene was so different then,” he said. “We were all painting, but not as a career. There were no M.F.A. programs, no colleges with decent art programs, no jobs, no market. As an abstract painter, you’re always flying in the face of your country’s values,” he said. “All of a sudden Louis [Louis Stern, galleries] is selling a lot, but I’ve never made a lot of money. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting the colors right.”

(TY Jori Finkel/New York Times)

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