Karl Benjamin

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					                                                                                                                     Claremont COURIER/Saturday, August 4, 2012   12

Karl Benjamin                                                                                                                       OBITUARIES
Local legend, wizard of color leaves lasting legacy

                            COURIER archive photo
Karl Benjamin in his studio in September 1990.

       peaking to those who knew Karl Benjamin, a
       longtime Claremonter and renowned abstract
       painter who died July 26 at the age of 86, 3
themes emerge: his warmth and generosity to family,
friends and students; his prolific artistic output, fueled
by a strong work ethic and a genuine joy at being
among his paints and canvases; and an almost alchem-
ical mastery of color.                                                                                                              COURIER archive photo
   “In every bio of Karl, in every review, everyone al-      Karl Benjamin at home in July 1977.
ways talks about these just sumptuous and impossibly                                               tubes/Alizarin crimson/Cadmium yellow/Mars black
perfectly combined colors that seemed to dominate the                                              and Thalo blue/charcoal lines sketched on stretched
emotional life of the paintings. He was some kind of                                               linen/waiting for the man’s beautiful choices.”
magical genius about why salmon looks perfect next to                                                 Sometimes, after gathering a carefully selected
ochre or Tasmanian blue,” said Marie Chambers, di-                                                 palette of pigments, Mr. Benjamin would ask his chil-
rector of Louis Stern Fine Arts, a West Hollywood                                                  dren to pick the color he would start a painting with,
gallery that has represented Mr. Benjamin since 2004.                                              adding a bit of chance to his choices.
   It is Mr. Benjamin’s use of color that made him the                                                Mr. Hueter marvels at Mr. Benjamin’s consistently
most prominent of the painters included in the ground-                                             large output.
breaking 1959 Los Angeles County Museum of Art ex-                                                    “I asked him once, ‘How is it you can work with your
hibit, “Four Abstract Classicists: Karl Benjamin, Lorser                                           teaching all day and then come home and start working
Feitelson, Frederick Hammersly and John McLaugh-                                                   on your paintings, and the next morning do more?
lin.” The highlighted artists were known for a southern                                            Where does your energy come from?’ He said to me, ‘I
California-born oeuvre called Hard-edge painting,                                                  just want to see how they’ll come out.’”
which eschewed expressionism in favor of geometry.                                                    Later, Mr. Benjamin would shift his teaching focus to
   The exhibit’s curator, art critic Jules Langsner, ex-                                           post-secondary education, serving as professor and
plained the genre thusly: “Abstract Classicist painting is                                         artist-in-residence from 1979 to 1994 at Pomona Col-
hard-edged painting. Forms are finite, flat, rimmed by a                                           lege and the Claremont Graduate University. He was a
hard, clean edge. These forms are not to evoke in the                                              wonderful teacher and friend, said Roland Reiss, an-
spectator any recollections of specific shapes he may                                              other celebrated member of Claremont’s art commu-
have encountered in some other connection. They are au-                                            nity and a professor emeritus at the Claremont Colleges.
tonomous shapes, sufficient unto themselves as shape.”                                                “Karl was one of the warmest, kindest people you
   While Mr. Benjamin did achieve the aforementioned                                               will ever meet—I’m not exaggerating. Students and
clean edge, using masking tape, the effects of his color                                           friends sought him out over the years, and not just be-
choices challenge the critic’s definition of forms that                                            cause he was enormously successful,” Mr. Reiss said.
are flat. The way the same color would change with                                                    Steve Comba, assistant director and registrar at the
various juxtapositions made Mr. Benjamin’s canvases                                                Pomona College Museum of Art, first learned of the
extremely fluid, said James Hueter, another member of                                              Claremont Colleges as an undergraduate, when Mr.
the art community that sprung up around the Claremont                                              Benjamin came to UC Santa Barbara as a guest lecturer.
Colleges in the ‘50s, born of GI Bill education funding                                            He headed east to CGU, where Mr. Benjamin proved to
and a post-war creative boom.                                                                      be a delightful mentor.
   “You see one thing and then it’s, ‘Oh my goodness,                                                 “What’s interesting about Karl is that, even though I
look what’s happening here!’ and ‘Look what’s hap-                                                 studied with him for 2 years, he never taught me how
pening here!’” said Mr. Hueter. “A painting is never one                                           to paint. But he taught me how to be a painter,” Mr.
thing. It’s an infinite number of things, and that’s cer-                                          Comba recalled. “He wasn’t your typical didactic,
tainly the way it was with Karl.”                                                                  headstrong professor type. He led by example and
   Mr. Benjamin’s canvases may be ever-changing, but                                               guided you with supportive urging.”
his formula was simple and unerring…hard work. He                                                     Mr. Benjamin’s students never forgot him. According
was an elementary school teacher in Chino from 1953                                                to Mr. Comba, the Benjamin home was the first stop
to 1976 and, in a poem called “The Artist At Home,” his                                            colleagues and former students would make upon re-
daughter Beth recalled her father’s routine after getting                                          turning to Claremont. But Mr. Benjamin’s art did fade
home at about 4 o’clock. After drinking a cup of coffee,                                           into relative obscurity in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
leafing through the mail and visiting his children, he                                                In recent years, there has been a renaissance of in-
would head out for the studio. Always.
   “I loved the smell of turpentine/the blue ceramic vase                                                                               KARL BENJAMIN
of brushes/the cubby stacked with smooth metal                                                                                 continues on the next page
                                                                                                                                            Claremont COURIER/Saturday, August 4, 2012   13

                            COURIER archive photo
Karl Benjamin with one of his paintings at the Clare-
mont Museum of Art in 2007.

continued from the previous page
                                                                         Gerard Vuilleumier/Louis Stern Fine Art                      Gerard Vuilleumier/Louis Stern Fine Art
terest in Mr. Benjamin’s work, partially due to the           Karl Benjaminʼs #7, oil on canvas, 1974.                     Karl Benjaminʼs #15, oil on canvas, 1984.
growing cachet of mid-century art and culture. In 2008,
his paintings were included in “Birth of the Cool: Cal-      for the Los Angeles Times, agrees you can meet the man          “Our relationship with Karl is ongoing. The work
ifornia Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury.” This         through his paintings.                                       goes on,” she said. “It was interesting. We sold a very
Orange County Museum of Art retrospective examined              “They’re better in the flesh. It’s old-fashioned, well-   beautiful and big Karl Benjamin painting, literally 2
the jazzy and often iconoclastic visual, architectural and   made things,” he said. “He put paint down as if his life     days before he died. We put a check in the mail because
musical works produced on the West Coast in the ‘50s         depended on it. And that’s really gratifying to see.”        he got paid. The appreciation and the demand for Karl’s
and early ‘60s.                                                 Mr. Benjamin will also live through the university’s      work has gone through the roof.”
   Mr. Reiss said it was a thrill to see his friend garner   annual Karl Benjamin award, which each year gives               Her own appreciation also continues to grow.
this kind of attention, well deserved considering Mr.        money to a promising new graduate for art supplies or           “That use of color, it’s just a home run. It was genius
Benjamin’s dazzling legacy.                                  whatever else they need to keep going with their art.        on every painting,” she said. “The thing that’s always
   “Where you go after someone has passed is to their           Ms. Chambers notes with pleasure that Louis Stern         struck me most is those colors, and how open-hearted
work, and you will see them there. That is the way that      Fine Art will continue to represent Mr. Benjamin’s size-     they are. Karl Benjamin’s paintings not only made you
artists continue to live.”                                   able artistic estate. She said the paintings are in won-     happy to look at them, but they made him happy while
   David Pagel, chair of the art department at the Clare-    derful condition due to his care with their creation and     he painted them. That’s a double whammy.”
mont Graduate University and an art critic who writes        storage. The price they fetch continues to rise.                                                        —Sarah Torribio

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Description: Claremont Courier remembers CGU alumnus and former professor Karl Benjamin