Abstraction

Karl Benjamin
Abstraction
Oil on canvas, 1955
50 x 30 inches
Promised gift of Nancy Dustin Wall Moure
PG.2004.009.002

Karl Benjamin was one of the painters featured in the landmark exhibition Four Abstract Classicists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1959. The exhibition thrust him and his colleagues John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, and Lorser Feitelson into the national spotlight. For the critic Jules Langsner, these artists were “purists of painting,” unfettered by realism or personal expression. Benjamin was a student at the Claremont Graduate School at the time of the Abstract Classicist exhibition, graduating in 1960.

Abstraction is asymmetrical, with hard-edged biomorphic shapes floating in space. According to Benjamin, Arshile Gorky inspired the curved, organic shapes in his paintings in the mid-1950s, but they also recall the palette and biomorphic surrealism of Charles Howard, who was influential in California in the post-World War II era.

Although Benjamin, who stopped painting in 1995, sometimes used simple mathematical progressions to compose his paintings, his working method was largely intuitive. After freely making marks on the page, he would look at what he had done to find his next move. Then, as he said, “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 physical and emotional response, a way to find your equilibrium in a painting, an action-reaction, motion-countermotion kind of experience.” This technique and Benjamin’s practice of listening to jazz music while he worked, contribute to the rhythmic, organic expression of shape and color in his paintings.