hard-edge, hard-won: karl benjamin

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Born in Chicago in 1925, Karl Benjamin moved to California in 1946 after WW II, after serving three years in the Navy. In 1949, he received a degree-not in art, but in history, English and philosophy-from the University of Redlands. By 1959, 10 years later, he was the youngest of the four painters included in the seminal “Four Abstract Classicists” show at LACMA. Today, he still lives in the Claremont Pomona region and continues to expand and show his remarkable body of work (a new show of his paintings entitled, “Dance The Line,” spanning nearly half a century, is now on view at Louis Stern Fine Arts through December 22).

Although his recollections of the days in which hard-edge came of age are colorful and hard-won, he does not look back at the post-war era with any glossy nostalgia. “There was no art, almost, in Los Angeles at that time,” he remembers. “It was incredible, there was so little.”

Hired as a sixth-grade teacher in 1947, Benjamin stayed at that job for 30 years (he later taught as a professor at Pomona College and at Claremont Graduate School). It was by watching the kids in his mandated 45-minute art class that he first got the idea to make art. “The kids would be drawing trucks, suns, it got kind of boring,” he recalls. “So I said, just draw colors.” Inspired by their work, he took out books on modern art; in 1952, he moved to Claremont to take classes on the GI Bill. There he met Frederick Hammersley and Peter Selz-“his wife and my wife were both trying to write poetry”-but he had little illusion about becoming an artist. “It was not like today, that there were art careers to be had. We weren’t thinking about making a living at it.”

Despite appearances, Benjamin did not see himself as reacting against Abstract Expressionism in his work, in fact, he greatly admired those artists. “Whatever I saw in a magazine, and liked, I tried to paint that way.” (A particular favorite was Hans Burkhardt.)

Of his own work, he describes, each canvas started out almost as automatic painting. He would “mess around freehand with charcoal until something began to happen. Then I’d start to wipe off some lines and add to others. It wasn’t that I was interested in hard-edge so much as that I painted in oil. I was painting with a stiff-bristle brush: the color came out differently; there was a different reflection, depending on the direction of the brushstrokes. The only way to ensure that you got one solid plane in space was to tape off the edges, so you could treat it all as one plane. Fred was different…he painted with a pallette knife.”

To Benjamin, the “Four Abstract Classicists” were actually quite different from each other. “I didn’t really feel like it was a movement,” he says. “There was a huge swath of styles that came out of that… We banded together for convenience sake.”

Of the all-too-common suggestion “that modern art began in L.A. with the Ferus Gallery,” Benjamin admits, “that got to be an irritant to many of us. It was such a small scene, they became an unstoppable force. [While] the rest of us were going off in our own directions…”

Out of all the hard-edge artists, Benjamin’s work is the most overtly musical and rhythmic, so it is no surprise that he listened to a lot of jazz, both during the war years and later in the studio. “I love that ‘Birth of the Cool’ title, because I wore that record out,” he laughs. “I must have worn out two, three copies.” But he does not agree with the idea that the post-war era in L.A. typified a ‘spirit of optimism,’ at least to those struggling to survive in the arts. “I would read that, I know that idea was out there,” he muses. “I don’t think so. Nobody sold stuff in L.A.”

He recalls a visit to L.A. from critic Clement Greenberg, well after the pinnacle of action painting, in the early ‘70s. “One night, he got his driver to drive him out to Claremont,” Benjamin recalls. “So we had a swell time. And he told me, ‘You’re a master painter.’ I thought, ‘Wow!’ Then he said, ‘But you can’t paint here. You’ve got to paint in New York, it’s gritty and it’s tough and it’s competitive. You’ve got to dig in and fight it.’ I said, ‘That’s not what I’m looking for, being competitive; it’s about pulling it out of myself. That’s not where I want to put my energy. I’m making beautiful paintings. That’s what I wanted.’”