Karl Benjamin: West Coast Geometric Abstractionist Dies Aged 86

Karl Benjamin Obituary

Karl Benjamin the west coast painter noted for his hard-edge geometric abstractions has died ,aged 86 Benjamin established a national reputation in 1959 as one of Los Angeles best known abstractionists. After retiring from a teaching career he was a professor and artist-in-residence at Pomona College from 1979 to 1994. His work fell out of fashion in the 1970s and ’80s, but he made a successful comeback in later years when his paintings were reassessed by younger artists, critics and curators.

Born in 1925, in Chicago, Benjamin began his college education in 1943 at Northwestern University but dropped out the same year to enlist in the U.S. Navy. At the end of his military service, in 1946, he moved to California and resumed his studies at what is now the University of Redlands.He was awarded a bachelor’s degree and married Beverly Jean Paschke and began teaching in an elementary school in the San Bernardino County town of Bloomington. After two years he shifted to a teaching position in Chino’s public schools. He and his young family moved to Claremont in 1952.

Benjamin’s art career began in 1951 when he was asked to add a component of art to his students’ curriculum. Initially working with crayons, he became intrigued with choosing colors and figuring out the effect of placing one hue next to another. Color, in and of itself, soon became his subject matter. In a 1986 essay Benjamin wrote: “I am an intuitive painter, despite the ordered appearance of my paintings, and am fascinated by the infinite range of expression inherent in color relationships.” Although he often set up a systematic structure based on numerical progressions, modular constructions or random sequences, he came up with surprising results.

He showed his work in 1954 at the Pasadena Museum of Art and in 1958 at the Long Beach Museum of Art. But he rose to fame in 1959-60 with “Four Abstract Classicists.” The landmark exhibition — also featuring the work of Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley — offered the L.A. artists’ cool, hard-edge abstractions as an alternative to the East Coast’s relatively emotional Abstract Expressionism. After appearances in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the show traveled to London and Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Benjamin subsequently showed his work widely and was represented in major museum exhibitions such as “Geometric Abstractions in America” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1962; the 30th and 35th editions of the “Biennial Exhibition of American Painting” at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1967 and 1977; and “Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

Besides his daughter Beth Marie, Mr. Benjamin is survived by his wife; another daughter, Kris Benjamin Jones; a son, Bruce, and six grandchildren.

Photo Courtesy Estate of Karl Benjamin