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Karl Benjamin

American
(1925–2012)

Interlocking Forms (Yellow, Orange, Black)
1959

Oil on canvas
42.75 x 48.75 x 1.75 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1994.31

Karl Benjamin lived for more than fifty years in a modest suburban home east of Los Angeles. A teacher in public elementary schools for almost thirty years, he once said, “I live in a nice, middle-class neighborhood, and I keep the lawn mowed.” His studio, which he designed and built himself, sat in the yard adjacent to the house.

If Benjamin defied the stereotype of the modern artist as an antibourgeois outlier, he further outed the stereotype of the geometric abstractionist (e.g., Piet Mondrian or Ad Reinhardt) as an obsessive reductionist with an overriding theory. Benjamin’s style was consistently hard-edge (he pressed down the edges of his masking tape with a guitar pick, a tool he regarded—along with acrylic gesso—as the only significant technical development in painting since Albrecht Dürer), though his motifs varied tremendously. He worked with circles and squares, trianglesand stripes, arcs and trapezoids. As for a color theory, he said, “You put down what color looks good with the other colors.”

When he painted Interlocking Forms (Yellow, Orange, Black), Benjamin was only eight years into abstraction, and his color is still a bit cautious. There’s an elegance and quiet beauty in the elongated vertical shapes that, with their contradictory black abutments, allude strongly to an illusionistic third dimension, something relatively rare in Benjamin’s oeuvre.

Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin were featured in Four Abstract Classicists, organized in 1959 by the Los Angeles County Museum. Thisshow is known in some quarters as the big bang of Southern California art, paving the way for the region’s “finish fetish” and light and space work of the following decades. Much more a sensualist than a rationalist, Benjamin is ultimately remembered as one of the most expansively intuitive practitioners of geometric abstraction.

Michael Duncan


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