The Artists’ Artist
By Christopher Michno
On the west-facing exterior wall of a two-story building at the corner of Gordon and Second in the Pomona Arts Colony, a new mural, featuring the imposing gaze of a man who seems to survey the west-end fringe of the Pomona Arts Walk, depicts the late painter, Karl Benjamin, who died just a few weeks ago. His face appears against a background of alternating light and dark blue triangles and rhombuses, and his hand extends to the side, grasping a brush as if poised to paint. In spite of his lengthy career as an artist, Benjamin’s visage is not immediately recognizable to the general public as a celebrity artist’s appearance might be, but to those who know of him, Benjamin was an artist’s artist, a remarkable painter whose oeuvre is endlessly engaging. He was profoundly committed to exploring geometric abstraction, and he carved out a career, against the odds, making a singular contribution to what is called Hard-Edge abstraction, or Abstract Classicism, while working as a grade-school educator and raising a family.
A Tribute Turned Memorial
The mural, which will undoubtedly be seen by detractors as a hurried gesture to memorialize the artist after his death or as an inadequate representation of the complexity of his painting, was in fact in the works, being discussed as early as February of this year, while Benjamin was still living. While it would be extraordinary to see triangles of yellow, red, orange and green from his checkerboard paintings, the mural is an interpretation of his approach to painting rather than a literal representation of his work. It was envisioned, says independent curator Andi Campognone, as a tribute to one of the region’s most significant artists.
The man responsible for this addition to Pomona’s public art, street-artist and muralist David Flores, is known for a series of murals celebrating prominent individuals who have influenced culture on an international scale. His work includes representations of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and R. Crumb, as well as non-artist culture-celebs, Mother Teresa, Jacques Cousteau and Sophia Loren. Flores has been longingly eyeing vacant wall space in the Pomona Arts Colony for several months. According to Campognone, who serves on Pomona’s Cultural Arts Commission, when Flores approached her to make a pitch for painting a mural in Pomona, she advised that any mural of a prominent personage should represent an individual who was significant within the Pomona Valley rather than an international art star with no intrinsic connection to Pomona. She suggested Benjamin.
“Four Abstract Classicists”
While Karl Benjamin is surely a local hero, he is also much more than that. As a young man, Benjamin aspired to be a writer, but began his career as a grade-school teacher. And as a teacher, Benjamin drew on his degree in English literature, history and philosophy to help his students write creatively. He delved into painting only when compelled to incorporate visual art into his classroom teaching. In the early 1950s, as he became more interested in visual art, Benjamin began his own explorations into painting and in very short order established himself as a serious painter. A solo exhibition of his work at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1954 revealed a decisive shift away from painting from nature to the beginnings of a systematic investigation of abstract formalism that would occupy him for the length of his career. Five years later, in 1959, Benjamin achieved international recognition with three other geometric abstract painters, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized the widely acclaimed show “Four Abstract Classicists,” which traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Art, and then on to London and Belfast. The work was seen as a response to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, and the painters worked in a rational, almost scientific, kind of empiricism, depersonalizing painting.
“It wasn’t about the rich, inner private life of the artist; it wasn’t that kind of self expression. It was more about making something that went out into the world and had consequences there,” asserts David Pagel, a contributing critic to the Los Angeles Times, curator and associate professor at Claremont Graduate University’s Art Department. Furthermore, it was about “engaging people and their responses; I think that is what design has done historically and abstract painting hasn’t done. Karl Benjamin’s great innovation was bringing the sophistication of abstract painting to the public, open, engaging side of design.”
Pagel contends that Benjamin’s painting is accessible and characterized by a kind of democratic impulse. Pagel further suggests that the individual paintings avoid the “preciousness and specialness and one-of-a-kind fussiness that design isn’t burdened by”—but that visual art so often is. In other words, Benjamin’s paintings function as objects that people can live with, as opposed to objects that have esoteric meaning.
More than Meets the Eye
At the same time, Benjamin was intellectually rigorous. The structural elements in Benjamin’s painting, “gave him a toughness, and a rigor and a logic,” Pagel explains, “so it wasn’t just beautiful, pretty colors together.” Benjamin’s painting explored the complexity of interlocking geometric shapes and the nuances of color, advancing the kind of empirical color investigations pioneered by the artist Joseph Albers; yet, Benjamin engaged in systems of chance, at times, to increase the complexity of his painting, or to interrupt his own inherent color predilections. He used aleatory methods in creating what are referred to as his checkerboard paintings, to arrange complex sets of regular triangles arranged on a grid, where color choices, shapes, rotations and axes of symmetry were governed by chance and generated unexpected formal arrangements.
One way Benjamin distinguished himself from his “abstract classicist” peers was with his facility for color. Benjamin’s approach to color imbued his paintings with retinal pleasures and addressed the physicality of the viewer in a manner that is similar to the phenomenological concerns of light and space artists. Many of Benjamin’s paintings seem to vibrate. Roland Reiss, an artist and longtime—now retired—chair of Claremont Graduate University’s Art Department where Benjamin held a faculty appointment (in 1979, Benjamin became Artist-in-Residence and a faculty member at Pomona College), called Benjamin, “the supreme colorist of the hard-edge painters. The color ranged from almost cacophonous and raucous, to extremely subtle. As he went on, the exploration of color got ever more interesting.” And, while Benjamin was always admired, the rise in his prominence, says Reiss, “. . . in becoming a real superstar, began to take place in the 1980s, concurrent with the growing interest in color.” Reiss also credits Benjamin with establishing an incredible range of expression. “There were groups of work within each body of work,” says Reiss, “in which he assayed different aspects of what was possible.”
A Man Before His Time
Campognone allows that there are many people in the region who remain unaware of Benjamin’s work and his significance, even after his more than 40 years active as a painter. Indeed, in spite of Benjamin’s early success, he worked for many years in relative obscurity. The critic, Dave Hickey, wrote in “Karl Benjamin: a new past is now available,” his catalog essay for a 2007 exhibit at Louis Stern Fine Art, that “after their 15 minutes of international fame as ‘Abstract Classicists’ [Benjamin, Hammersley and McLaughlin] continued to flourish in the sunshine of absolute neglect.” Pagel ratified this reality, saying Benjamin was “making work at a time, in a place, where no one was looking at it. He wasn’t getting shows, he wasn’t getting reviews, he wasn’t getting catalogs.” Yet, he persevered in spite of the lack of recognition. “He was involved in a self sustaining endeavor where he would complete this really terrific, strong body of work, and he would just put it away and start a new body of work,” Pagel remarked. “It was from the inside out.”
Benjamin was sure enough in his endeavor that even a challenge from the prominent critic Clement Greenberg didn’t shake him. In the 1970s, Greenberg visited Benjamin in his studio. Greenberg told Benjamin if he was serious, he had to move to New York to compete, to better his painting. Benjamin stayed put and continued to make his own work according to his vision. Interestingly, Hickey makes the case in “Karl Benjamin,” that the New York School, which Greenberg so vociferously championed, was “just another style,” and that the “dominant global idiom of that era,” was Hard-Edge painting and its global counterparts.
To Sit Quietly and Start Coloring
On July 30, Flores made his way to the Pomona Arts Colony, having recently departed the temperate, misty streets of London, just as the Southland’s summer heat was starting to get serious, and as the thermometer began inching into the scorch zone. Radiating like an oven, the baking concrete surfaces of Pomona greeted the artist who recently put up murals in the Oakley 2012 Olympic Athletes Safehouse—a.k.a. Oakley’s slick London lounge where the Olympians hung out to celebrate their wins and kick up their heels. Back in the heat of Southern California, Flores completed the Benjamin mural in time for the simmer of the August Pomona Art Walk.
Ironically, Karl Benjamin wasn’t concerned with celebrity; he was simply and resolutely committed to painting. He was engaged in a continuous structural arrangement of shape, color, pattern, space and rotation; he cared more for exploration than notoriety. Yet, his likeness appears on a wall in the Arts Colony. Pedestrians traversing the distance between venues will have ample time to consider the image before them as they pass through the west-end fringe of the Pomona Arts Walk along the row of businesses, studios and galleries. Perhaps some will stop to read the inscription painted on the corner of the mural. Those who know of Karl Benjamin will understand that his final admonishment would be for each one to sit quietly and start coloring.