An Interview with Artist Karl Benjamin ( 1925-2012 )

May, 2008

JK: In the early 80s, you embarked on several modular series.

KB: There is a strong sense of gridwork in this first group. And the colors have a tremendous impact on how we perceive the structure of each. In #8, 1982 you can see how the pale yellow elements become structural in appearance where they come together.

JK: On the right, we can see the module on which the painting is based, as well as how it might be combined in a group of four.

#8 1982#8 1982 single module and group of 4
#8, 1982, oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1982
#8, 1982, single module upper left;
a group of 4 interconnected modules
(each outlined in black) lower right

KB: l would draw these in ink, then work out the general hues and tonal relations with oil pastel. But the precise colors would only be selected as I began painting, and there was always a sense of surprise as I removed the tape that masked off the final color.

#1 1982
#1, 1982, oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1982
#13, 1981, oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1981

Then I introduced half-circles into the modules. In #15, 1984, there are no full circles due to how I chose to arrange the modules.

#15 1984
#15, 1984, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1984

The band The Police was very popular back then, and I thought of #7, 1984 as my Sting painting, with the group members moving back and forth across the stage.

JK: Sting being the stage name for Gordon Sumner, the group’s vocalist.

#7 1984
#7, 1984, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1984

And below we see a painting from this series where the modules are oriented so that some of the half-circles connect to form complete circles and even a pinwheel in the center.

#27 1984
#27, 1984, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1984

KB: The paintings from my next modular group are more complex.

#11 1985
#18, 1985, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1985

They’re somewhat like beehives—very active, composed of small modules.

#14 1985
#14, 1985, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1985

JK: After this last modular group, you made paintings whose shapes had often first appeared in your paintings from the 50s.

#18 1986
#18, 1986, oil on canvas,
160 x 114 cm (63 x 45 in), 1986

KB: A lot of my later work seemed to come very easily—sketching in charcoal on the canvas without a lot of rubbing out.

#4 1987
#4, 1987, oil on canvas, 160 x 114 (63 x 45 in), 1987

Compared to the more jazzed up feeling you get from the previous modular work, the later paintings have a certain serenity. They’re done in a full color and tonal range palette, but the colors are more modulated.

#12 1987
#12, 1987, oil on canvas,
160 x 114 cm (63 x 45 in), 1987

And I was still taking a “hunch” approach to color, so I’d often have to wait for colors to suggest themselves.

JK: The feeling in #2, 1988 is especially graceful, as the vertical forms flow uninterrupted from top to bottom of the canvas.

KB: Yes. And especially in paintings like #2, 1988 and #3, 1988, I thought of the darker shapes that surround some of the tall forms as shadows. They add a sense of depth to the work.

#2 1988#3 1988
#2, 1988, oil on canvas,
160 x 114 (63 x 45 in), 1988
#3, 1988, oil on canvas,
160 x 114 cm (63 x 45 in), 1988

JK: Below are some paintings from the 50s that contain similar vertical shapes.

Red, White, Blue
Red, White, Blue, oil on canvas, 76 x 127 cm (30 x 50 in), 1957

Easter in particular seems to contain the seeds of many subsequent paintings.

Easter
Easter, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1957

And once again in some of your late work, we feel the presence of the grid.

KB: I made drawings for the paintings below on paper with a large grid on it. Thus I was once again using gridwork as an underlying structure, then breaking it down.

#23 1988#2 1989
#23, 1988, oil on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1988
#2, 1989, oil on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1989

JK: In #6, 1989, the forms feel increasingly liberated from the grid.

#6 1989
#6, 1989, oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1989

And the painting below has an interesting story.

KB: I was standing before a large square canvas holding a piece of charcoal, and suddenly the whole room seemed to come apart as a large earthquake struck. The next day, I went back to the canvas and began making these slanting lines radiating out from the center—something very different for me.

#4 1990
#4, 1990, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1990

JK: Yes, and we can still sense a fracturing of space in #5, 1990 that followed.

KB: Friends have often told me they see Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in this work.

#5 1990
#5, 1990, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1990

JK: A strong energy radiating outward from a central point of origin also appears in #8 from this year..

KB: Yes, like solid tubes projecting out.

At this point, I wasn’t working in large series. These late paintings are rich in color and value relationships. I got a lovely, calming feeling working with them.

#8 1990
#8, 1990, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1990

The works below were among my last, as I stopped painting in 1995.

#5 1994
#5, 1994, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1994

When you’re painting, the only thing you’re really aiming for is to realize that painting. I think all of us are confronted with the problem of feeling whole. Look around you—how many people feel really whole? It’s a rare thing. When you make a painting, you’re so closely identified with it that it is you, and when it’s done and it feels whole, then you feel whole as well. Otherwise, why would artists spend their entire lives painting?

#6, 1995, oil on canvas, 112 x 142 cm (44 x 56 in), 1995

JK: In his catalogue essay that accompanied your recent retrospective, Dancing the Line, at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood, Dave Hickey offers a wonderful image that I think captures the nature and remarkable breadth of your painting career.

#8 1995
#8, 1995, oil on canvas, 112 x 142 cm (44 x 56 in), 1995

Hickey writes, “Benjamin doesn’t follow a path, deal with issues or aspire to a ‘look.’ The narrative of Benjamin’s work spreads like a delta.”

Karl Benjamin
Karl Benjamin in front of I.F. Big Magenta with Green,
oil on canvas, 102 x 127 cm (40 x 50 in), 1959

More information about Karl Benjamin at karlbenjamin.com

Interview images and text copyright © 2008 Julie Karabenick & Karl Benjamin. All Rights Reserved.

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