An Interview with Artist Karl Benjamin ( 1925-2012 )

May, 2008

JK: During the early 50s, you were experimenting broadly and quite prolifically with various styles.

KB: Yes. People who are latecomers to a field tend to be more excited, more turned on—it’s the recent converts who are always the most involved.

Early on, there was really no orderly development to my painting. Sometimes, I would work in an abstract expressionist vein—like Mark Tobey or early de Kooning, very free and calligraphic.

Untitled 1952

Untitled, oil on masonite,
122 x 60 cm (48 x 23.5 in), 1952

JK: Were your forays into Abstract Expressionism satisfying?

KB: I felt that the above painting and a few others came off, but for the most part, I never got a good feeling for when this type of work was finished. It felt like skating on thin ice as I flicked my brush around, wondering when the ice would break and the painting would disintegrate.

JK: That same year, you also tried painting in a cubist style.

Untitled, oil on canvas,
61 x 30 cm 
(24 x 12 in), 1952

Again, this was quite early in my career when I was just beginning to paint. I also worked semi-realistically in a cubist-type realism that used close values so that forms often shaded into one another. I had really looked at and tried to paint like Feininger, Sheeler, and the early Cubism of Picasso or Juan Gris.

Claremont Water Tower, below, is a fairly realistic painting done in quite low key colors.

Claremont Water TowerForest Fire
Claremont Water Tower, oil on canvas,
~102 x 76 cm (~40 x 30 in), 1953
Forest Fire, oil on canvas,
~91 x 61 cm (~36 x 24 in), 1953

Forest Fire was based on a fire up in the Padua foothills. I could see the light flickering in a red haze against a background of black charred trees. The spiky shapes might have come from Rico Lebrun, Picasso, or perhaps Hans Burkhardt, a student of Gorky.

The cubist-inspired still lifes below were also begun from actual objects. They recall the work of Juan Gris.

Untitled 1954Poppies
Untitled, oil on canvas,
~61 x 51 cm (~24 x 20 in), 1954
Poppies, oil on masonite,
~61 x 51 cm (~24 x 20 in), 1954

JK: Alternatively, you often began a painting by drawing lines or forms on the canvas with no particular references or allusions guiding you.

KB: Images tend to float around in your consciousness; they are part of your vocabulary and they simply emerge. Usually associations didn’t occur to me until a painting was almost completed, sometimes even much later.

Brown, Pink and Yellow
Brown, Pink, and Yellow, oil on canvas, 46 x 91 cm (18 x 36 in), 1953

The cubist oil above reflects a conglomeration of images I was dealing with—architectural forms, an opening suggesting sky or moon—again painted in low key colors and close tonal relations. Sometimes I would get a strong whiff of Surrealism if I wasn’t careful.

JK: The cubist-inspired works soon gave way to paintings in which the shapes were more distinct and abstract.

KB: Yes. As my colors got brighter, the edges of my shapes got more sharply defined.

Seascape
Seascape, oil on masonite, 33 x 64 cm (13 x 25 in), 1954

This semi-abstract seascape was painted with a palette knife with very thick paint in bold, saturated colors. Here, I was recalling a place at Laguna Beach as well as a similar spot where my parents lived in Santa Barbara—a long spike of land, a foreground, an open sea.

JK: Did you begin Red Sun/Blue Moon with a particular scene in mind?

KB: No. I began with soft charcoal, making shapes on the canvas. At some point, the forms began to resemble a landscape. Then the painting just had to have a circle, then a second. You start out doing something, and the painting asks for something else.

Red Sun/Blue Moon
Red Sun/Blue Moon, oil on canvas,
104 x 66 cm (41 x 26 in), 1954

JK: After only a few years of painting, in 1954 you had a solo exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of Art.

KB: Yes. About half the work in that exhibition included still lifes, landscapes, and seascapes, often in a cubist style, and the other half was abstract, often with allusions to nature.

JK: From that point on, your work would be exclusively hard-edged.

Butterflies
Butterflies, oil on canvas, 76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1955

KB: Yes. People tend to think we choose the directions we take. I didn’t. More and more geometric forms kept coming out in my work. I was trying to paint a beautiful picture and make it feel right to me. I just kept working, trying to get the right line, the right color, hoping that something would gel. You do this, and all of a sudden, your own voice has emerged.

Theme and Variations
Theme and Variations, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1956

JK: There’s a remarkable diversity of form and compositional approaches in these early paintings from the mid 50s.

Red, Yellow, Green
Red, Yellow, Green, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1957

KB: At the time, I was too busy to think much about that. I’d come out to the studio in the morning, turn the lights on, look at what was going on, and go off at a quarter to eight to teach. As soon as I came home, I’d change my pants, check the mail, turn on a sprinkler and go out to the studio. I never questioned what I was doing, never stopped to say, “Is this the image I really want to make?” I didn’t evaluate my paintings in advance.

Yellow Sky
Yellow Sky, oil on canvas, 81 x 122 cm (32 x 48 in), 1957

JK: By this time, you had your own house in Claremont.

KB: We moved into our house in the fall of 1955, and by the end of the year my work really exploded. I think this had a lot to do with having my own home, planting my own trees, and having three kids out of diapers.

JK: Many of your paintings from this time have strong allusions to nature and natural forms, reinforced by their titles—even though, as you say, you typically began with no particular image in mind.

Black PillarsLandforms
Black Pillarsoil on canvas,
122 x 61 cm (48 x 24 in), 1957
Landformsoil on canvas,
122 x 61 cm (48 x 24 in), 1956

KB: Yes, the associations came later.  For example, with Black Pillars I began to think of Stonehenge as those large black forms emerged with the light coming from behind.

Green Moon with WindowsIrganic Forms
Green Moon with Windows, oil on canvas,
102 x 76 cm (40 x 30 in), 1957
Organic Forms (Ochre), oil on canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 1957

JK: In the above paintings, we once again see a moon- or sun-like shape associated with architectural forms on the left, and a more surreal, perhaps underwater landscape on the right.

Chino Hills
Chino Hills, oil on canvas, 56 x 86 cm (22 x 34 in), 1957

KB: Yes. I’d also been working with perspective in drawings, and in Chino Hills, the forms began to look like the low Chino Hills that I saw every morning as I drove to school.

JK: During this perod, your paintings were often filled with skewed rectangles, at times floating freely in an indeterminate space, at others stacked or tightly compressed.

KB: I usually began these paintings with what I called a “sky color,” —sometimes dark, sometimes light—that gave the sense that you were in space, flatness set against depth. These grounds provided a spatial frame of reference, a sense of back and forth.

Small Planes: White, Blue, Pink
Small Planes: White, Blue, Pink, oil on canvas,
91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1957

I did many of these “floaters” on a field in a variety of intensities and color ranges. Some had large planes and were quite simple, some were more like shingles with narrow spacing.

Untitled 1957
Untitled, oil on canvas, 51 x 102 cm (20 x 40 in), 1957

JK: And, as we see below, these irregular planes of the 50s would reappear, here in paintings from the 90s.

#2 1991#3 1991
#2, 1991oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1991
#3, 1991, oil on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1991

During the late 50s, you were also exploring symmetry.

KB: Yes, I was thinking a lot about symmetry at the time. I’d been taught that you’re supposed to avoid too much symmetry—that it’s too academic, not very interesting.

Red, White, Blue Symmetry II

Red, White, Blue Symmetry II, oil on canvas, 51 x 127 cm (20 x 50 in), 1958

But I began to realize that these paintings had a kind of 3-D effect that’s more striking than simple symmetry. In the painting above, you get the sense of multiple doorways or revolving doors. This is a good example of what so often happens: the image starts to be one thing and morphs into something entirely different.

Gothic Symmetry also dealt with symmetry, but unlike the others in this series, it does have a strong reference—to Gothic cathedrals. I didn’t have this idea from the outset, but obviously it was lurking somewhere in my consciousness.

Gothic Symmetry
Gothic Symmetry, oil on canvas,
152 x 76 cm (60 x 30 in), 1958

JK: Your Totem series from this same time continues your work with vertical forms, here oblique forms that zigzag, jostle and interlock with one another.

Totem Group IV

Totem Group IV, oil on canvas, 102 x 127 cm (40 x 50 in), 1957

The Totem paintings led directly to your very large and well-known Interlocking Forms (I.F.) series. In the I.F. paintings, we can often sense allusions to figures.

KB: Yellow, Ochre, Umber has always reminded me of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase or many figures in a crowd. This series had at least 50 paintings.

I.F. Yellow, Ochre, Umber
I. F. Yellow, Ochre, Umber, oil on canvas,
107 x 157 cm (42 x 62 in), 1959

JK: Once again, you mined an individual motif, discovering many variations.

I.F. Yellow, Orange, Black
I.F. Yellow, Orange, Black, oil on canvas,
107 x 122 cm (42 x 48 in), 1958

KB: The I.F. paintings all arose from a similar impulse: almost automatic and, in most cases, slanted vertical lines made in soft charcoal on the canvas. Then my hand would go rhythmically over the canvas, making small slanted horizontal lines. Yellow, Orange, Black, above, suggests notes of music on a page. Amber, Umber, Yellow, Crimson, below, has the feeling of a mesa at sunset.

I.F. Amber, Umber, Yellow, Crimson
I.F. Amber, Umber, Yellow, Crimson, oil on canvas,
102 x 127 cm (40 x 50 in), 1959

JK: Some of the I.F. paintings use few colors while in others, the colors range widely, a variation we see elsewhere in your work.

IF Violet, Burnt Umber IF Light against Gray
I.F. Violet, Burnt Umber, oil on canvas,
127 x 76 cm (50 x 30 in), 1958
I.F. Light against Gray, oil on canvas,
124 x 76 cm (49 x 30 in), 1959

You showed paintings from the I.F. series in the historic Four Abstract Classicists exhibition held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum in 1959. The exhibition subsequently traveled to London and Belfast under the title West Coast Hard Edge the following year. The exhibition also featured Frederick Hammersley, John McLaughlin, and Lorser Feitelson.

KB: The four of us never thought of ourselves as a school or movement. And I was very busy with my family, teaching and painting. I had little time to socialize—let alone theorize.

Abstract Classicists

The four artists and curator, Jules Langsner, meeting at Lorser Feitelson’s
studio, May 10, 1959. From left to right: Jules Langsner, Karl Benjamin,
John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson
(reproduced from Journal, The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art,
Number Five, April-May 1975)

JK: In his catalogue essay, Langsner wrote that for the form-conscious classicist, “The relation of form to form—the construction of the work—constitutes a raison d”être itself.” (Four Abstract Classicists, San Francisco Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum exhibition catalogue, 1959).

KB: Such terms are for writers, not for artists. In my maturity, I can’t even use categories like Apollonion and Dionysian. Just think about, let’s say, de Kooning’s work. The best paintings are absolutely ordered down to the last brush mark. And I can think of lots of hard-edge paintings that have a tremendous kick to them.

A painter seeks uniquely ordered relationships. What makes a painting a real painting, transcending any talk about style or type or period, is a nonverbal and important psychological matter. When you’re painting, you try to get the right color and line, to make an organic whole.

JK: Lawrence Alloway retitled the exhibition West Coast Hard Edge when it traveled abroad. He felt that the term “classicism” implied a stable order that failed to capture the visual experience of the work, with its “optical drama” and “irreducible ambiguities of positive and negative forms.” (Art International, Vol. IV, 2-3, p. 60).

KB: Again, to illustrate the shakiness of the term “hard-edge,” ask your self, “What is soft-edge?”

JK: You would revisit the interlocking forms motif many years later.

KB: From the beginning, the interlocking forms seemed to keep emerging as figurative, architectural or sometimes landscape forms. In these mid-80s works, there is a wider range of color and more dynamic color relations.

#6 1986#3 1986
#6, 1986oil on canvas,
160 x 114 cm (63 x 45 in), 1986
#3, 1986, oil on canvas,
160 x 114 cm (63 x 45 in), 1986

The painting below is one of a kind. The four- to six-sided irregular rectangles seem to shift sideways with thin dark shapes like space coming through.

Untitled ca. 1959
Untitled, oil on canvas, 76 x 127 cm (30 x 50 in), ca 1959

JK: As we’ve seen earlier, you made your first group of stripe paintings using varying widths and a broad color palette at about the same time as the I.F. works.

Vertical Stripes #3
Vertical Stripes #3, oil on canvas,
107 x 122 cm (42 x 48 in), 1959

Several subsequent series from the early 60s have strong architectural resonances.

KB: Moving into my own house was a very meaningful experience for me. I didn’t know much about architecture at the time. I just wanted a house. But I became friends with our architect who explained everything to me. The style he used—post and beam construction, exposing the structure rather than hiding it—was new to me.

I had a separate studio built in 1959. Since then, I’ve alway been able to see my paintings through windows in my house. I’d keep a light on in the studio so I could see the paintings any time I needed to settle down.

Benjamin house and studio
Karl Benjamin’s Claremont studio as seen from his house

The more I think about it now, the more I realize the very powerful influence the architecture of my house had on my painting, especially the Tape Grid and Floating Structure series, though I didn’t really think about this much back then.

Tape Grid #3Tape Grid #34,
Tape Grid #3oil on canvas,
51 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in), 1960
Tape Grid #34, oil on canvas,
127 x 81 cm (50 x 32 in), 1961

JK: In the Floating Structures paintings, the clustering shapes float freely and are separate from areas of solid color.

FLoating Structures #1
Floating Structures #1, oil on canvas, 107 x 127 cm (42 x 50 in), 1961

KB: A little like the working drawings of an architect with palsy.

Floating Structures #5
Floating Structures #5, oil on canvas, 81 x 102 cm (32 x 40 in), 1962

JK: Then came the rectilinear Vertical Horizontal series.

KB: To design these, I used colored paper to overlap colored planes, and then I placed black strips over them—like collage studies.

Vertical Horizontal #1Vertical Horizontal #5
Vertical Horizontal #1, oil on canvas,
107 x 86 cm (42 x 34 in), 1963
Vertical Horizontal #5, oil on canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 1963

JK: At this time, you were also making some reliefs.

KB: Unlike the Vertical Horizontal paintings, in these wood constructions I would first establish the structure before making color decisions.

Construction 1963
Construction, wood strips and masonite panels with oil, 91 x 183 cm (36 x 72 in), 1963

In the construction below, I mounted strips of wood molding on a base of plywood and painted it all flat white.

Construction, acrylic paint on wood,
127 x 76 cm (50 x 30 in), 1965

JK: As you would often do throughout your career, in the early 60s we see you returning to curved shapes.

C.S. #4 1963#23 1963
 Curved Shapes #4, oil on canvas,
140 x 107 cm (55 x 42 in), 1963
 #23, 1963, oil on canvas,
56 x 36 cm (22 x 14 in), 1963
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