An Interview with Artist Karl Benjamin ( 1925-2012 )

May, 2008

Karl Benjamin was born in Chicago, IL in 1925. He received a BA from the University of Redlands, Redlands, CA and an MA from the Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, CA. He was awarded National Endowment for the Arts Grants in both 1983 and 1989. Benjamin taught in the California public schools from 1949 to 1977. In 1979 he was appointed Professor of Art and Artist-in-Residence at Pomona College. He also served as Professor of Art at the Claremont Graduate School from 1979-1994 where he is currently Professor Emeritus. Benjamin has exhibited his work since 1953, including in over 80 solo exhibitions. His work is found in many private, corporate and public collections, including: the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; the Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO; the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC; the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA; the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA; the Cheney Cowles State Museum, Spokane, WA; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; and in California: the La Jolla Museum of Art; the Long Beach Museum of Art; the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Newport Harbor Art Museum; the Oakland Museum; the Palm Springs Desert Museum; the Pasadena Museum of California Art; the San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Santa Cruz County Museum of Art; as well as the Museum of Modern Art, Haifa, Israel. Benjamin lives in Claremont, CA. He is represented by Louis Stern Fine Arts located in West Hollywood, CA. [Karl Benjamin passed away in July, 2012, an inestimable loss to the art world—JK  LA Times]

Julie Karabenick: Your paintings, which span the early 1950s through the mid 1990s, show great visual diversity.

 #6 1990
#6, 1990, oil on canvas, 122 x 152 cm (48 x 60 in), 1990
(Unless otherwise noted all images courtesy of the artist and Louis Stern Fine Arts)

Karl Benjamin: My development is not characterized by one thing building directly upon another. I have a number of recurrent motifs that seem to appear once every decade or so.

I.F. Green, Umber, Ochre
I.F. Green, Umber, Ochre, oil on canvas, 107 x 142 cm (42 x 56 in), 1959

I was criticized for this, but I just kept painting. Different images kept coming—with one thing leading to something else. It was the sense of adventure that mattered.

#7 1970
#7, 1970, oil on canvas, 145 x 145 cm (57 x 57 in), 1970

Critics often failed to appreciate the threads that ran through my work, threads that were repeated periodically and that knitted their way throughout my painting career.

#21 1979
#21, 1979, oil on canvas,
183 x 137 cm (72 x 54 in), 1979

Quite early on, I began to develop a strong sense of shapes and the areas in between them. When I look back to the early 50s, a time when I experimented widely as I searched for my own voice, even two paintings like Bud’s Bike Shop and Markers don’t really look so very different to me. They’re both large accumulations of rectangles reflecting a common underlying sensibility. In Bud’s Bike Shop stripes also appear, anticipating later work.

Bud’s Bike Shop, oil on linen,
50 x 60 cm (19.5 x 23.75 in), 1953
Markers, oil on canvas, 76 x 122 cm (30 x 48 in), 1955

Since my first museum exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1954, my work has dealt with hard-edge, more or less geometric forms and an intensive exploration of color.

Stage II, oil in canvas,
127 x 178 cm (50 x 70 in), 1958
#4, 1973, oil on canvas,
130 x 173 cm (51 x 68 in), 1973

JK: You’ve used individual motifs with a great deal of variation. For example, at times a motif might form the basis for a very complex composition, and at other times it might appear alone or within a very simple arrangement of forms

#18, 1964, oil on canvas,
130 x 107 cm (51 x 42 in), 1964
#2, 1985, oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1985

KB: Almost from the beginning, if I was doing a lot of very busy or complex paintings, then I’d move on to more simplified compositions and vice versa. Similarly, if I was working with very bright, saturated colors, then I might work in neutrals or monochrome for a while, or I might alternate them.

Green & White Rectangles, oil on canvas,
91 x 61 cm (36 x 24 in), 1961
#42, 1964, oil on canvas, 64 x 130 cm (25 1/4 x 51 in), 1964

It wasn’t a matter of philosophical desire. I think this reflects the organism’s desire for variety—too much of something salty and you want something sweet.

JK: Looking at one motif, stripes have appeared periodically and quite prolifically in your painting.

KB: My first vertical stripes series from 1959-60 featured stripes of different widths. These paintings were fairly lyrical and non-systemic in color. I’d seen paintings by Barnett Newman with a stripe down the center of the canvas in the 50s and thought, “So you can paint a painting with just verticals” —though our aesthetic goals were quite different.

Vertical Stripes #13
Vertical Stripes #13, oil on canvas,
127 x 102 cm (50 x 40 in), 1960

JK: Did you make preparatory studies for these stripe paintings?

KB: No. I was guided by an intuitive sense of proportion. As I so often did, I would begin drawing freehand with soft charcoal on canvas. I’d put down a line, then another that made a shape and so on until I got the design right. In the stripe paintings, I’d take a ruler and measure so the widths were equal up and down. I realized that the different widths were so close to ratios of one another that I’d simply use them. It’s amazing what comes to you intuitively.

JK: And the choice of colors?

KB: I’d look at a shape—usually the widest stripe—until it “said” a color, then I’d wait for the painting to ask for something else.

Vertical Stripes #5
Vertical Stripes #5, oil on canvas, 86 x 107 cm (34 x 42 in), 1960

JK: That method of working sounds like your friend, Frederick Hammersley’s, idea of “hunch” painting.

KB: Yes. I’d begin with some automatic or impulsive marks. Then, I’d look at what I’d done until it suggested the next move. I’d rub out some marks and add others until relationships began to take shape. Then I’d go back and make the shapes exactly right. This method of working involves a kinesthetic response—a physical and emotional response—a way to find your equilibrium in a painting, an action-reaction, motion-countermotion kind of experience.

I was doing a lot of color mixing in these early stripe paintings. I’d wash in a very thin turpentine wash of color and make only minute adjustments before the final coat of paint—which yellow? —which deep green? —never any radical changes. I only really changed a color once in my life.

I couldn’t get my LA gallerist to hang these early stripe paintings. She said LA wasn’t ready for them.

JK: Over time, the stripes became thinner, regular in width, and more systematic in color.

KB: I did a large group of paintings where the stripes were ½ inch wide.

#21, 1977, oil on canvas,
127 x 138 cm (50 x 54 1/2 in), 1977
#23, 1977, oil on canvas,
127 x 138 cm (50 x 54 1/2 in), 1977

But I found that for optical mixing to occur, you had to view these paintings from a considerable distance. So my final group were tall paintings with 1/4 inch wide stripes. I used only a few close-value colors, but there’s a tremendous amount of optical mixing going on, and it’s visible from relatively close up.

#2 1981#2 1981 detail
#2, 1981, oil on canvas,
183 x 135 cm (72 x 53 in), 1981
#2, 1981 detail

JK: You’ve used the rectangle motif with great variety over your career.

KB: Yes—sometimes I’d use just two or three rectangles in a field, and sometimes I’d make very busy paintings of many small rectangles.

JK: Busy—as in #1, 1972 that has a grid of 24 x 24 rectangles—576 individual forms!

#34, 1964, oil on canvas,
107 x 107 cm (42 x 42 in), 1964
#1, 1972, oil on canvas, 130 x 173 cm (51 x 68 in), 1972

And there have been many different levels of complexity in between, as seen, for example, in these two paintings from your Bars series from 1959.

Bars: Blue, White, Brown, oil on canvas,
107 x 91 cm (42 x 36 in), 1959
Bars: Multicolored, oil on canvas,
130 x 152 cm (51 x 60 in), 1959

And you’ve periodically used round and curving forms, though they appear less frequently in your work.

KB: Yes. The organic forms in these two paintings from 1963 suggest the figure.

#5, 1963, oil on canvas,
109 x 78 cm (43 x 30 3/4 in), 1963
#25, 1963, oil on canvas,
61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 1963

JK: More gently curving forms appear in the late 70s, although now in a full spectrum palette.

#12, 1979, oil on canvas,
71 x 61 cm (28 x 24 in), 1979
#17, 1978, oil on canvas,
71 x 61 cm (28 x 24 in), 1978

KB: Yes, in contrast to the earlier works with a few bright colors, here we see many modulated colors despite the formal similarities.

JK: Let’s look at a few more motifs or structures that appear first in the early 50s that you would return to in the late 80s and early 90s.

KB: In Growing Forms, the biomorphic shapes I used were initially inspired by Gorky.

Growing Forms
Growing Forms, oil on canvas,
122 x 46 cm (48 x 18 in), 1955

JK: Similar shapes appear more sparsley in paintings from the 90s in the modulated palette characteristic of your later work.

#3, 1992, oil on canvas,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1992
#1, 1993, oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1993

And, as we’ve already seen, you’ve often used the grid to structure your paintings.

KB: Yes. Even in these two paintings—one from 1968 and one from 1989—you can sense an underlying, organizing grid.

#15, 1968, oil on canvas,
127 x 127 cm (50 x 50 in), 1968
#1, 1989, oil on canvas, 152 x 172 cm (60 x 60 in), 1989

JK: And here again, we can sense a kinship between these paintings from 1958 and 1987, even though in the earlier work, there is more concern with symmetry and more systematic color.

Stage, oil on canvas, 102 x 127 cm (40 x 50 in), 1958#11, 1987, oil on canvas,
160 x 114 cm (63 x 45 in), 1987

Did you have much exposure to art when you were growing up?

KB: There was a lot of music and literature in our house, but absolutely no visual art. Both my parents had attended the University of Chicago. My mother taught botany in high school and community college. My father was a doctor. My grandfather was the cellist in the Chicago Symphony.

JK: You began your undergraduate studies at Northwestern University as an Engineering major.

KB: I had scored in the 99th percentile on the spatial relations portion of an aptitude test. But no one back then said I should become a hard-edge abstract painter! I did poorly in mathematical subjects and really wasn’t very interested in anything in particular. At that point, I wanted to enlist; however I was only 17, and my parents wouldn’t sign enlistment papers. So I enrolled in an officer training program. When I turned 18, I enlisted and was immediately assigned to active duty. I served from 1943-46 in the Navy. While stationed in the Philippines, I served as a B-17 tail gunner.

JK: And after you left the service?

KB: My father, who had served as a doctor during the war, wanted to leave Chicago. In 1946, we moved to Redlands, CA—home of the navel orange. My father bought a run-down, three-story Victorian house that we restored. It had five or six acres of orange groves. I worked doing landscaping and gardening and entered the University of Redlands on the GI bill. I began as a Botany major, but it was growing things that I really enjoyed. I wanted to be a writer, so after one semester, I became an English major. I graduated in 1949 with a combined major in Philosophy, English Literature and History.

JK: Was it at Redlands that you first tried your hand at painting?

KB: Yes. It was during my second year at Redlands that I first experimented with paint. I really admired Miro and thought I would try to do a Miro for over our sofa. I bought what I thought were Miro colors and made a painting of about 2 by 3 feet. I remember for the first time feeling that time had stopped as I painted. I thought I could make a few of those rounded shapes—but Miro tricked me. You do things in your naiveté that you’d never dream of doing later when you know more.

JK: After graduating from Redlands, you got your first teaching job in an elementary school in Bloomington, CA.

KB:  Yes, in 1949, I married Beverley Paschke and began a public school teaching career that would continue for almost 30 years. At the time, teaching was the only job I could get. Bloomington was a poor non-town—mainly mobile homes and trailers. The families were primarily dustbowl refugees from Oklahoma and the South. The parents would never come to the schools; you had to go to their houses, and you never saw a book in any of them.

I was writing short stories at the time, and I got the kids to write poetry. The poems they wrote were really something special—the grammar was poor, but the imagery was great. I wondered how they could be doing this.

JK: And you had to teach art as part of the curriculum.

KB: I was teaching sixth grade, and you were required to teach art a certain number of minutes per week. I really had no insight into art and no clue what to do in the classroom. At that time, being creative in advanced circles meant throwing clay at a wall, and I couldn’t stand chaos. I passed out paper and crayons, and soon I wouldn’t let the kids draw mountains or trucks because that was all that seemed to occur to them and quickly became borning. I told them to concentrate, fill up the paper, and make pretty colors—and this became my rule for life: fill up the paper and use lots of colors!

JK: And, as with poetry, the results the kids achieved amazed you.

KB: They were doing beautiful things. I wondered how they were doing this. It wasn’t coming from me; it wasn’t coming from their parents or their environment. Later on, I would give assignments, for example, “Make a rainbow.” They produced wonderful color relationships—not just the standard rainbow colors—sometimes the rainbows were atonal, sometimes they recalled a cloudy day. If students asked for help, I’d simply tell them to use a color that went with what was already there—and they’d do it, not realizing how difficult that was. Only lately have I understood that what my students produced seemed very mystical to me.

JK: Do you think what the kids were able to do gave you confidence in your own potential?

KB: I think unconsciously, sure. It made me realize something about myself—that whatever this force was, I could tap into it. I took the same approach to teaching art with students from 4th through 8th grades, and it always worked. There weren’t just a few art stars in the class, but the great majority did things that satisfied themselves, me, and their classmates. I used the same approach, but in words with a few more syllables, with sophisticated young college students, and it was just as successful.

JK: During this time, you continued to study and do art on your own.

KB: At that point, I was absolutely at ground level in terms of my own aesthetic development. I went to the library and learned by poring over what few books and magazines were available back then. I also began visiting museums and galleries. I had no formal art education as yet. Actually, I chose my own teachers. If I saw something in print or at an exhibition that I liked, I tried to paint it or something like it.

As I experimented and read, I knew I needed to leave Redlands where art meant a portrait of your grandfather. I heard that Claremont had a lively art scene and two colleges with good art departments. I visited a few times and was really impressed. I wasn’t thinking about a career in art; I just wanted to make beautiful paintings. In 1952, we moved to Claremont.

JK: Where you entered graduate school.

KB: I had two years left on the GI bill. I showed my work to Jean Ames, a Claremont faculty member who also taught art education and had heard that I had some wonderful children’s art. She encouraged me to take her design course, and I did get a lot out of it for a few semesters. But I tired of doing assignments. Jean encouraged me to stay in school. I lived right across the street from the college, and Jean allowed me to paint at home, and she’d visit me on Wednesday afternoons. Back then, I didn’t realize how unusual it was to give a student that much freedom.

JK: What was the art atmosphere like in graduate school at the time?

KB: Quite conservative. In those days, you learned by painting like your teachers. The loosely painted, mild expressionism of Millard Sheets was considered modern. And Henry Lee McFee did these Cezanne-ish semi-abstractions, and all his students painted like that. I loved his paintings and, in between my own experimentation, I’d try to paint like McFee.

I recall that Sheets didn’t include one of my large geometric paintings in a student show. He just shook his head at my work. Even Jean Ames, who was supportive, would say in a friendly sort of way, “Good old Karl, he always does the same thing.” What they wanted was “paint quality” —a type of painterly semi-abstraction. As I got closer and closer to hard-edge geometry, the knock on me was that my paint quality needed to be more natural and pleasing. And I really did want to be a “paint quality” guy with those charming brushstrokes. But what could I do?

JK: Despite this lack of appreciation in school, you began to exhibit your work quite soon after you began to paint.

KB: Yes, things happened quickly. In 1953 I had two solo exhibitions, and in 1954 I had a solo exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum.

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