Masters of Modernism — The Accidental Modernist

How Karl Benjamin helped pioneer an art movement that, 50 years later, continues to inspire brave explorations in abstract geometry

Steven Biller

From his favored chair in the living room of his midcentury modern house in Claremont, Karl Benjamin can see through the backyard atrium into his studio. Behind a wall of glass, the bright colors of three of his paintings — one of his classic stripe canvases, one with interlocking forms, and one geometrically abstracted landscape — exude a vitality that could be bittersweet for the 83-year-old artist.

Sweet is the resurgence of Benjamin’s paintings, each rich in carefully selected and applied color — from juicy oranges and hot reds to crisp greens and deep blues. This month, 10 of his canvases appear in Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, the traveling exhibition organized by the Orange County Museum of Art that has reached its final destination: the Blanton Museum of Art at University of Texas in Austin.

Bitter might have been Benjamin’s retirement from painting about a decade ago. A bad back, a hip replacement, and the inevitabilities of aging forced his hand. He put down his brushes — but continually looks back, literally to the studio (“You should see it lit up at night,” he beams) and also figuratively at his body of work. Retiring, he says, “gave me a lot of time to look back and think. I bring out paintings now and see new things and learn new things about myself.”

If his paintings over the years appear remarkably even in quality, he can be grateful for his intuition and meticulous execution. “There’s only one way [the paintings] should be,” he says, understating the hand-drawn conception of each exacting composition and his selection of colors.

Benjamin practiced what he had preached as a teacher, first to sixth-graders and eventually to students working toward a master’s in fine art. His career as an artist, much less a professor of art, is an improbable one. With a credential to teach sixth grade, he landed in a classroom in Bloomington with an order from the principal to teach art for 45 minutes a week.

“They didn’t know about art, and neither did I,” Benjamin concedes. “But my ignorance left me wide open to ideas. I passed out crayons and paper. At first, they drew trucks and trees and houses and the sun. Then I told them they could no longer draw those. They had to fill up the paper with color. I wouldn’t give them another piece of paper until they did. At first, they talked and laughed, and I said this would be like mathematics: They had to be quiet and concentrate. I got excited about what they were doing.”

Benjamin took to painting, too. When he went looking for guidance, he found that good art was hard to come by in late-1940s Los Angeles. “There were a lot of magazines around, and I saw Picasso and Miró in the library. I tried to [re-create] the Miró.”

Benjamin also was inspired by Adolph Gottlieb, Willem de Kooning, and, later, Piet Mondrian. Ultimately, he followed the schoolboy guidelines he handed down to his students: “Find the right color and put it down next to another — and make it good.”

He needed little time to find his own visual vocabulary and a consistency in his process. His broad strokes of evenly applied oils saturate the canvases, and he used masking tape to separate the colors, a style that became known as “hard edge.”

In 1954, he installed a solo exhibition at Pasadena Art Museum. Four years later, Long Beach Museum of Art showed 21 paintings in Karl Benjamin: Abstract Classicism.

He became prolific, with paintings ranging from post-Cubist landscapes, such as Chino Hills and Green Moon With Windows (both 1957) — “In the late ’50s, a lot of the paintings referred to natural things” — to his series of stripes, interlocking forms, rectangles, posts and beams, totems, and bars (checkered patterns).

That early contingency on the landscape combined with his geometric systems gave his work a formalist quality, and he soon discovered a small group of other Los Angeles painters working in a similar style. He introduced himself to one, Frederick Hammersley, at a Pomona College faculty show. “I said, ‘We paint the same way,’” Benjamin recalls. They remain friends.

In 1959, the Los Angeles County Museum — which at the time was more popular for its natural science displays — mounted the exhibition Four Abstract Classicists, featuring Benjamin, Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin. Critic Jules Langsner, who helped organize the exhibition, reportedly coined the term “hard edge” to unify the artists.

“Geometric Abstractionists were part of the earliest resistance to the Abstract Expressionists, who had made New York the center of the art world after World War II,” says Daniell Cornell, deputy director of art and chief curator at Palm Springs Art Museum. “In New York, artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and Barnett Newman were grouped under the rubric of Color Field painting or Post-Painterly Abstraction. Their West Coast counterpart was the group of Geometric Abstractionists associated with Karl Benjamin in Los Angeles.”

By 1960, Benjamin — who continued teaching — had earned a master’s degree from Claremont Graduate School and the attention of gallerists and museum curators. The Four Abstract Classicists exhibition was renamed West Coast Hard Edge for its London debut. The term “hard edge,” Cornell says, “probably stuck because it distinguished them from their New York counterparts, and because it calls up the imagery of postwar design that many of these artists were mining.

“I believe that it is a mistake to focus so strongly on their hard-edge line and the flatness of color because such a description ignores the significance of the language that [the Los Angeles artists] invented from their conscious design sensibility. The work should be considered groundbreaking for its emphasis on the juxtapositions of color and dense patterns. In Benjamin, in particular, his smooth, uniform color without brushwork or pictorial depth is not flat because of the way he uses oil paint to capture light within the surface, unlike the opaqueness that results from acrylic paints.”

In 1962, Whitney Museum of American Art included his work in two exhibitions — Geometric Abstraction in America and 50 California Artists — and the Museum of Modern Art included him in the 1965 Op Art exhibition The Responsive Eye.

During the subsequent 40 years, Benjamin participated in hundreds of solo and group exhibitions at galleries and museums, saw his work enter prestigious museum and private collections, and won two National Endowment for the Arts grants.

Today, his studio feels more like an office or an intimate place to view mesmerizing canvases, some that date back 50 years. Some of the canvases are so bright and rich that they look like they still might be wet.

Palm Springs Art Museum has five Benjamin paintings in its collection, which also includes work that draws on the influence of the artist and his contemporaries. “The resurgence of interest in the work of Benjamin and other Hard-Edge Abstractionists by artists such as Tim Bavington or Jim Isermann reflects a generation of artists who grew up on the traditional art historical narrative of the heroic, post-World War II Abstract Expressionists, and they were looking for an alternative language that could encompass their more design-conscious concerns,” Cornell says.

“Additionally, the recognition in the art world that Los Angeles has emerged in the last 10 to 15 years as the site of significant artistic innovation has led to a reconsideration of the artists who preceded this explosion.”

When you hit a certain age and you’re still painting, Benjamin says, they call you a master and fete you with big exhibitions. In 2007, Claremont Museum of Art reopened after a 20-year hiatus with a retrospective of Benjamin’s paintings. His work also appeared in group exhibitions organized by critics Peter Frank, Dave Hickey, and David Pagel. Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood has mounted three solo exhibitions and published two books show-casing Benjamin’s oeuvre. Louis Stern also represents Feitelson and Lundeberg, while Charlotte Jackson Fine Art in Santa Fe, N.M., handles Hammersley’s paintings.

These artists took their cues from the lines, spaces, and colors that prevailed in modern design, which would eventually shape the postwar design-inspired genre occupied by artists such as Jorge Pardo and Palm Springs’ Jim Isermann. For his part, Benjamin takes great pride in the success of several of his students, notably his protégé, Alex Couwenberg, whose floating, sometimes overlapping shapes and high finish bring together the hallmarks of California’s native Modern design, Hard-Edge Abstraction, and Light and Space/Finish Fetish art.

Most artists do what they do more for love than for money. This was true of Benjamin, who recalls the days when he struggled to sell paintings for $100. Now, with art dealers promoting California hard-edge painters and curators and critics renewing their interest in Abstract Classicism, Benjamin’s place in art history has proved vital and widely influential. He is a master of the midcentury aesthetic that Southern California — especially Palm Springs — celebrates as its own.