A Conversation with Karl Benjamin
Interview conducted in the artist’s home studio at Claremont, California, June 22 and July 5, 2011 by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art” was presented in an exhibition Sept. 4-21, 2013 at CGU East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. The series was curated by Dr. Thayer and sponsored by Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities.
A dazzling practitioner of what critic Jules Langsner termed hard edge painting and one of the four artists featured in the landmark 1959 Abstract Classicists exhibition, Benjamin fills each canvas with meticulously orchestrated color. A sharp-angled wedge of forest green lined by the tenderest block of spring green forms something like the feeling of a hill or does it? Benjamin’s intuitive sensitivity to the peculiar union of form and color produces works that defy reason and return the viewer to the purely sensual delight of seeing. Karl Benjamin’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and is included in a number of prestigious private and public collections. Louis Stern Fine Arts is the exclusive representative of his work.
Karl Benjamin was born in Chicago, IL in 1925. He received his BA from University of Redlands, Redlands, CA and his MFA at Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, CA. He was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Visual Arts in both 1983 and 1989. His work has been featured in numerous museum exhibitions and is included in the public collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, Israel; Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Seattle Art Museum, WA; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, among others. For many years, Benjamin taught painting at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate School, and retired as Professor Emeritus. He lives in Claremont, CA. Courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts.
JILL THAYER: What childhood factors contributed to you becoming an artist?
KARL BENJAMIN: Yes, I think my grandfather sort of took care of me when I was … because he was a musician. He was a cello player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And my mother was teaching school and they lived in the same apartment building. So he spent a lot of time with me in the daytime ‘cause his hours were nighttime hours. And he taught me how to play piano and I can only remember this, but I remember he said that I had perfect pitch and that I should be a piano player, and I did play a lot of stuff.
JT: How old were you?
KB: Very little, I think like Kindergarten. And I remember, he said I had perfect pitch. But then, he died when I was like seven or eight.
JT: But you remember that.
KB: And they tell me that I never played anymore. I hooked that up with him. He also would have two or three friends in the shows that would come over to the house … and we would call them jam sessions, they were classical musicians, so I was around that quite a bit.
JT: Was anyone in your family an artist?
KB: Just my grandfather.
JT: He was a musician.
KB: A cellist.
JT: Growing up, did your family encourage you to pursue your career or your interests when you were young? What were some of those interests?
KB: How young?
JT: Eight, nine, ten?
KB: Well, at that age I used to garden.
JT: I can see this from your beautiful grounds.
KB: Well, Beth picked that up too. She took it a long ways.
JT: I understand that you served in the Navy in World War II and moved to California. Do you recall what year that was?
KB: Right after the war ended, ’46.
JT: You and your wife Beverly were graduates of Redlands University where you studied English Literature, History, and Philosophy, and in 1949 you received your BA degree and teaching credentials. Was that correct?
KB: I got a job the year I graduated. I had to have a job ‘cause Bevi had a year to go. So I had to get a job for a year.
JT: You graduated in ’49 with your Bachelors?
KB: ’49 . . . and so, I wanted to be a writer. I was trying to write short stories and stuff. But this, the only job I could get was a job teaching sixth grade education … and it was after the war there, and all the school districts were after young men because they realized also that there were all a bunch of old ladies that were teachers. That was the only job I could get. So I finished that year. Do you know how I got interested in art?
JT: I read somewhere that it was when you taught Sixth grade.
JT: They asked you to develop art in the curriculum. Is that true?
KB: No, sort of … but a month or so, or two into my first year, the principal came around checking on the new teachers. He said I was doing fine, but I wasn’t doing any art. And I said, “But I don’t know anything about art.” And he said, “State law says so many minutes per week of art.” So, I just shrugged and passed out paper and crayons, and said, “Do art.” I mean, all I could do. . . . I had no interest. My parents never talked about that, they were scientific people. So, I had already, these poor kids … a farm, working man’s town and the kid’s had no cultural stuff behind them, and so, they didn’t know what to do. So I said, “Make pretty colors.” And I was always very easy, I never had any problems having discipline in the class. I found it very easy to do.
JT: Art was captivating for them.
KB: They just decided to fool around, and I said, “No, this is just like arithmetic, you gotta concentrate. And I realized that they would make a couple of lines and they would want a new piece of paper. So my new rule was you don’t get a second piece of paper until you fill up the first one with color. So all of a sudden, under the strong hand of the teacher, they kept their mouth shut and it’s really hard to put down one color then another without having some kind of impulse that they belong together, whether we talk about that or not.
KB: So one thing led to another and I began to realize that this was going on and I had no experience in this. So I got some art stuff and magazines, and I realized that I had good luck with them writing poems to go with my thing at the point of words. Now if they could, these so called ‘dumb kids,’ could do these really good things with poetry, they must be able to do something like that in art. And so then I started to use the crayons so that my route was not through normal circumstances. It was a forced route.
JT: So your interest in art actually emerged from your engagement with your children in the class.
KB: Yes. So that Summer I took an art class at Redlands. We were still in Redlands. And I know the art teacher there, who was a good guy, and he comes up to me, he was much older, he expected more than I could … he didn’t realize that I had nothing behind me.
JT: Do you remember his name?
KB: Richard Beaman. After Beth was born the third year, Bevi took over the class then I went right to school, I had GI Bill time left. So I went to [University of] Redlands. So then, I probably went into too much detail, but that’s how it … so Redlands did not turn out. It was a Baptist school and they didn’t like abstract art either. So I heard this rumor that down the road is Claremont, there was this art program that was really good, which it was for Southern California. That was all the graduate school at Scripps. It was just the art department. So, it became one in the same. And it was for its time, they say, kind of fairly advanced, it was compared to the rest of it. That’s how I got started and then it worked out pretty good.
JT: I see that you received your M.A. degree in 1960, is that correct?
KB: It was 1960 because I had to take extra work. There were a lot of teachers in the program in the summertime and I had the GI Bill. But I tried. I wasn’t a very good student.
JT: How so?
KB: Well, I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do. I was getting what was going on in New York and Paris, the magazines.
JT: The Abstract Expressionists?
KB: Yes. And so, I said, “I’m gonna quit.” And so, my teacher said, “Don’t quit. I’ll let you do what you want to do.” We lived a block from Scripps at that point.
JT: Do you remember who the teacher was?
KB: Jean Ames. She was on faculty, she and her husband. So that’s what I did that for a couple years. She would just come by my house Wednesday night and see if I hadn’t been working. But, really what I was using as teachers was the people I read about in books and magazines, and some shows.
KB: There weren’t many shows out here then. So my teachers that I wound up this time painting like were de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, and Tamayo, but in a very short time started to gel. Actually it was in 1954, I think, that I had my first big show at the Pasadena Museum. I was trying to paint like all these people I was admiring all by myself. So, I was sort of picking my own teachers in a way. But I think that most artists do that anyhow. I mean, you didn’t have to know Picasso to be influenced by him.
JT: Of course. Can you recall your fellow students, some of your friends or peers during that time at Scripps?
KB: At Scripps? Sure! Well, there was a bunch of guys my age three or four years older and they were trying to do semi-abstract figures, which was Millard Sheets, you know that name.
JT: Of course, Millard Sheets.
KB: Well, he was very conservative but he was very demanding. He ran the show. And you did what he wanted you to do.
JT: He was one of the professors?
KB: Yes. And, he had my work taken out of the student show because it was abstract and he didn’t want any abstract painting around here. So I quit altogether. I just taught school and painted when I got home.
JT: When you were at Scripps, who were some of your friends that you ran around with? Fellow artists.
KB: There was a bunch of guys. Jim Heuter, who still lives here . . . Doug McClellan, he’s up in Santa Cruz . . . Paul Darrow, Roger Kuntz, and Sue [Lautman] Hertel.
JT: That’s quite a list.
KB: But they all had about three or four years in the service on the GI Bill and some were a little bit older, and they had kids already. So that was a whole different thing.
JT: In 1979, after almost three decades of teaching in what, elementary and middle schools you chose to teach in the Claremont Colleges. There you were, a professor and an artist in residency at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate School. Can you recall the circumstances that led you to Claremont, as opposed to the many universities who were trying to get you to teach there? How did you choose Claremont?
KB: Well, “A,” Nobody tried to get me. That’s the first thing. [Laughs]
JT: That’s not what I read, but okay!
KB: But there got to be a time where they were pretty big … the three kids and Beverly was teaching full time at Chaffey College. And she was getting her Ph.D., and so, I thought, well, and I was selling some, not enough to live on but to help. I thought I’d just quit. So after about two years, the President of Pomona College, David Alexander called me and asked would I like to teach at Pomona College. So, I went over to see him and they were interested in me, not only in the fact that I had started to get a reputation, and been shown in Europe and New York, but, as Alexander put it, “We like our faculty to stay close. And every time we’d get a good artist, they realized that L.A. is where you want to be so they could put there, you live in L.A. they’d just come out for their classes. We know you’ve lived here for twenty years and you’re not going to go away, and if the students come and knock at the door, you won’t kick them out.” Well that’s fine. And I said, “And I have to use the same approach that I used with those kids,” and so they said, “Okay.” [Karl replies,] “And, I don’t want to go to anymore meetings. I’ve been to too many meetings.” [They replied,] “Okay, you don’t have to go to any meetings, then we’ll make you an artist in residence besides a Professor in Art.” They let me in as Professor, as full Professor. So he was there, and he was very nice. But, I did the same thing with the kids that I did in Bloomington. I worked on a much higher plane ‘cause they were older and it worked out fine. It was individualized. Except for Beginning Painting, I gave beginning assignments, but they were broad enough so you could do the same thing, but show your own sensibilities.
JT: Karl, do you see a change in how art education is taught today as opposed to then or, if not today, decades when you had taught. Did you see any change or transition in that?
KB: Quite a bit. That’s so big a question.
JT: It is.
KB: Pomona was one thing and Scripps was totally a different thing entirely, and the same six blocks away. I was the only painting teacher.
JT: What year was this?
KB: before World War II, lots of schools didn’t have Art departments or studio departments, even more so and that this wasn’t a thing. That it really grew after WWII and this group came back. So, that caused a change right there. Not that there were no more academics . . . there were. But there were different alternatives.
JT: What was happening in the outside world and did socio-political environment influence your life and art?
KB: I was never very political in art. I was very political otherwise, in terms of movements, and donating paintings and money, but I was not. I did not see art as a non-visual thing to have a dogma about, and to set rules about, which still existed.
JT: What was the culture like at the time? Describe the campus, the environment during this period.
KB: Well, to me it was like a holiday. I was doing what I really liked to do. And, when I told them I didn’t want to put in any more meetings, he said, “Well also, you only have to paint, you only have to do two classes a week.” Not a week, a semester.” But no everyday stuff.” So I only have to do two. If you’re on staff at Pomona you’re automatically, if they approved it, on the staff at the graduate school so they would sign up with you as independent study. And you do whatever the two of you work it out.
JT: So the professors and the students were able to cross discipline between the universities, the schools, and the colleges?
KB: And the Claremont Colleges, overall. It was all the same ‘cause if you were at Pitzer and you didn’t like the people over there, and you heard I was okay, they’d come over and visa-versa. If they didn’t like the way I did things they could go to Pomona.
JT: Can you describe a typical day as a professor in Claremont, when you were a professor?
KB: I just went over there and they picked up work on a painting they were working on, and I wandered around, and once in awhile talked to the class as whole, but mostly, it was one on one. And lot of times, they’d come over here when I didn’t have a class, which I never found objectionable because I never found that anybody was wasting my time. They were interested in something important to talk about or they wanted to see what I painted.
JT: The students were able to come to your studio?
JT: Oh, that had to be a thrill.
KB: Oh sure. They didn’t have to. I didn’t have to do that. The older guys didn’t like that.
JT: Why do you think that is?
KB: Well, they were, the older guys, the chief art professor laid down the rules of how many fingers on a hand and I heard from a lot of those guys who were long distance. The only trouble I had politically at Pomona was, with all due respect, was with some of the women teachers who did not think what I was doing was, they thought it was frivolous. That I was just fooling around or worse yet, [they would say] “You’re just painting to sell for corporate collections.” And I said, “I’ve got 200 paintings out there in my garage and nobody’s buying ‘em!” It just so happened that we had two very dogmatic, hard-nosed photography teachers that were women. And I know other women teachers who were artists that did not teach that way. I know a lot of men teachers that taught that way. History teachers, you had to be a Marxist or something.
JT: They integrated critical theory and practice.
KB: It just so happened, in my department, the men didn’t give any problems. The Art Historians weren’t real friendly with them, although wondered why I couldn’t paint figures like everybody else. Now, also what happened at the same time, economics had a big impact because upwards before World War II there was no market for art––a very, very, very small market. And look what you have now. You have guys 30 years old, already hiring assistants. You don’t do it yourself, which to me is crazy because it’s moving that pen around with your fingers is what it was all about.
JT: Where does the art lie? In the intention or the creation? There are many artists that don’t touch the work.
KB: Oh, I see.
JT: How do you feel about that?
KB: They may have all the million dollar art galleries in the biggest cities, capitals of the world. It’s just another major commodity.
After a break, the interview continues.
JT: Karl, we were talking about your teaching at Pomona College, but the students were able to take courses from Scripps.
KB: I had students from Scripps and from Pitzer.
JT: Yes, and you mentioned teaching at Claremont Graduate University. You said an independent study?
KB: At Pomona College, if you passed, certain unspoken [teaching protocols and expectations] you were invited to, full professors were also invited to teach at the graduate school, if you wanted to do it. Everyone did it on an independent basis. “I’m free Friday afternoon. Meet me up at the Pomona studio.” It would be like that.
JT: When you were working concurrently while you were teaching, you were producing your art. What was the L.A. art climate like at the time? What was the art scene like at the time, in Los Angeles?
KB: When I was at Pomona?
JT: Yes, the galleries.
KB: Well, it wasn’t just one thing, but I think, by the time when I got here, which was ’79, I think they just reflected what was going on in New York. I mean, because you have all of these good magazines all of a sudden. All of the galleries. . . .
JT: Artforum or what magazines?
KB: Yes, ARTnews, Artforum. All kinds. And there were so many galleries. When I first started to get interested, I said to Bevi, “Let’s go to L.A. and go to some art galleries and see what they’re doing.” On Sunday we packed up and go into Los Angeles so I don’t know what, this was late ‘40s? And there were three art galleries, three bona fide galleries.
JT: Do you recall the names?
KB: Sure, the two hotels, big hotels had very plush galleries, the Biltmore and the two famous in L.A. That was one place because then you had wealthy travelers. These were nice hotels. They were not slop houses [chuckles]. Fancy, had a dining hall and good clothing stores in there. It could have been Frank Perls.  He was one of the very first. And Felix Landau  was one of the first. Now there were some framing stores, which might have a couple of landscapes and a couple of Italian Renaissance and mostly commercial things.
JT: This goes way back.
KB: Millard Sheets was closely involved with one of them. So, good Scripps’ graduates got to put their paintings in the hotel, you know. Only a very few, four or five . . . But, there was no commercial thing yet, way of speaking. I’m talking about 1950 was when we first stuck our nose in there. And this was when the big cultural migration was coming from the rest of the country out to Los Angeles for all kind of reasons… and San Francisco.
JT: So there was the tourist trade, but the Arts were starting to come into their own.
KB: Sure. And that’s all with people moving here . . . all these track houses.
We discuss the “Four Abstract Classicists,” exhibition curated by Jules Langsner.
KB: Well, that was put together in 1959, I think. That was a big deal at that time, the Abstract Classicists. Because, here we are, four guys.
JT: “The four founders of the Los Angeles Abstract Classicists,” which include yourself, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin.
JT: This 1959 landmark show at the L.A. County Museum, of which you were all featured, was curated by art critic Jules Langsner who coined the term, “Hard- edge Abstraction.” And, it is noted that in this period of California Hard edge painting, it exemplified the aura of “cool” in mid-century California and ushered in a new discourse in West Coast painting. Let’s go into that now. Tell me what you were going through at the time when you were involved in this tremendous exhibition.
KB: I was, at that time, teaching in Chino, in sixth grade. I didn’t have a degree.
JT: How did this evolve?
KB: One day, I was up at the Pomona College Galleries and I saw these paintings by a guy named Fred Hammersley. And, they were sort of similar to mine and they weren’t about people, they were about shapes and colors. I thought that was interesting. They had a show once a month at the gallery. And, I introduced myself to Fred, and said, “You and I are painting with certain similarities. But people are laughing at us, and we’re all by ourselves out here.” I said, “Lorser Feitelson is an old guy in L.A. and he’s doing his kind of things, and so there’s an old guy named John McLaughlin who I’ve seen.” So, I went over to talk to Peter Selz, who was the head of the Department at Pomona at that time. And, I just said––we were pretty good friends.
I said, “Wouldn’t you like to see your Department members . . . Fred being a Pomona guy, get some exposure?” So he said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And that was not his thing. His thing was German Expressionism. He didn’t like abstraction too much, but he set us up with a show that was to open at the L.A. County Museum. He and I were pretty close. He got an offer for a big job at The Museum of Modern Art in New York so he went to New York. He told Rick Brown, who was the head of the museum that we got this good thing going, because he had this vested interest in me and Fred, helping us out. I said, “Would you take over this show? It’s going to be pretty good.” He said, “Sure, I’ll take over it.” And, it got bigger right away. He brought in the San Francisco Museum.
JT: I understand it traveled to Ireland and London. They re-titled it or something?
KB: Yes. And also it traveled, another group of the same paintings, and where they showed in this country, so it got in all the magazines. And there wasn’t that much happening. Rico Lebrun probably was the big artist at the time out here, who was a “Picasso” and kind of figurative paintings drawing social/ political element. Rico Lebrun … and he taught in L.A., very influential. Picasso had figures and Lorser Feitelson was starting to introduce his funny abstract stuff. And, he was old enough to be my father. I mean, he was a different generation. And John McLaughlin, who was a Bostonian who had served some time after the war with Zen camp out in China or something. His abstract shapes were coming from a totally different direction than what we were doing. So was Feitelson who had some European … So that was the first kind of thing that came out of here. But it never went over on the West Coast Hard edge painting. They liked more painterly, more romantic, more expressionistic, more political. It’s just now that we were starting to be reborn.
JT: Yes, creating a new discourse. You must have been in your 30s.
KB: Yes, I was born in ’25. So I was 35.
JT: Who were some of the artists that influenced your work?
KB: I’ll tell you who I really tried to paint like was Jackson Pollack, Rico Lebrun, believe it or not.
JT: I think you mentioned Barnett Newman.
KB: He was barely older than me although, I was influenced by him, I thought . . . actually, Gorky . . . the painterly de Kooning.
JT: And Diebenkorn?
KB: He was more my age, although I was influenced by him. He was a little bit older than me. I was very taken by him. They were teachers. Do what felt good, and those guys were what felt good. That’s why I would try to do that.
JT: Yes, and also, your philosophy of color in that wonderful interview by Geoform. You were so articulate in your methodology and the philosophy of color. Maybe speak a little bit to color and form, and how you navigated your process.
With this question, Karl tires and wishes to take a break. Between interview sessions, Beth shares that Louis Stern and Suzanne Muchnic were there the day before to gather pieces for Karl’s solo exhibition at Louis Stern Fine Arts in September, 2011. It is a privilege to be in the studio as Karl shares his commentary on many original works we are viewing from the archives for the first time.
[Beth Benjamin accesses work from the studio archives, as Karl shares his comments. The first piece was influenced by Tamayo. Karl points to a painting that Beth has discovered in the file.] Karl emulated the painting style of artists he found inspiring, which helped develop his technique and methodology early on.
JT: Karl, Were you influenced by Cézanne in any way?
KB: Yes, absolutely!
JT: What is the title of this piece?
KB: It didn’t have a title. I looked at that today and I just really wonder, and I think back, that’s exactly just what I told my kids. That’s what I wanted them to do. “You see something you like and you try to do one like it.” [Instructing his elementary students] Oh, take that down [motioning for Beth to retrieve a painting from the file]. That, I did my first year at Scripps. It’s a lantern.
JT: What year is this one again, Karl?
KB: Millard’s . . . 1950. [Referencing an painting assignment in Millard Sheet’s class.]
JT: And the title?
KB: I don’t think there would be a title. Here’s my painterly abstraction stuff. That was something done in Jean Ames’ class.
JT: Oh, this is a beautiful piece!
KB: That was a lantern.
JT: A lantern. That’s a beautiful piece. Is that work on paper?
JT: Oh! This is magnificent. How did this not end up in one of the shows they are collecting work for?
KB: I don’t know, they were just mementos of the time to me. I just had them cleaned and framed.
As we prepared to showcase this oral history project in a Fall 2012 exhibition at CGU Art, I received word from Beth Benjamin on July 26 that her father passed away peacefully at home surrounded by family. Karl Benjamin was an extraordinary artist and a dear friend. We are grateful for his contributions to the contemporary discourse and to have captured his voice in our Oral History Series for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities and CGU Art. ~jt
 Archives, Manuscripts, Photographs Catalog. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). “Frank Perls papers and Frank Perls Gallery records, circa 1920-1983, bulk, 1949-1975.” Frank Perls (1910-1975) was an art dealer and gallery owner from Beverly Hills, California. Perls introduced southern California to artists he believed represented the best modern art of America and Europe. Between 1950 to 1954, Frank Perls Gallery organized the first West coast exhibitions of Joan Miro, Marino Marini, and Alberto Giacometti. Perls also gave exhibitions to newly emerging artists of Southern California artists, including William Brice, Robert Chuey, Rico Lebrun, James McGarrell, Channing Peake, and Howard Warsaw. © 2011 Smithsonian Institution All rights reserved. For more information, see: <http://siris-archives.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!211805!0>.
 The J. Paul Getty Trust. “Pacific Standard Time at the Getty Center: Explore the Era – Felix Landau Gallery.” Felix Landau opened his gallery in 1951, ushering in an era when La Cienega Boulevard would be the center of Los Angeles’s gallery scene. Not only did he support several important Californian painters and ceramicists, he also held exhibitions of European artists such as Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, and Francis Bacon, bringing many of their work to Los Angeles for the first time. © 2011 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved. Sept. 11, 2011 <http://www.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime/explore-the-era/locations/felix-landau-gallery/>.
 Karabenick, Julie. “An Interview with Karl Benjamin.” (4 parts) May 2008. Geoform Sept. 11, 2011 <http://www.geoform.net/features/features_benjamin-1.html>. Copyright © 2005-2011 GEOFORM. All Rights Reserved. All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.
The audio recording and narrative transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Karl Benjamin by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 June 22 and 2011 July 5, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of Karl Benjamin, Louis Stern Fine Arts, Frank J. Thomas Archives, Jill Thayer, Ph.D., and January Parkos Arnall, Ph.D. are copyright protected and require expressed permission by the contributors for use. Other photographs and art images are copyright protected and may be used without permission, and cited as follows: [Image title] ©2011 [Artist or Photographer]; Oral history interview with Karl Benjamin by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 June 22 and 2011 July 5, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.
The above is a partial transcript from the original interview. The full transcript is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. For more on the work of Karl Benjamin, visit: http://www.karlbenjamin.com; and “‘In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” see: Jill Thayer, Ph.D. – The Artist, Emergence, and Culture: http://www.jillthayer.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/in-their-own-words-oral-histories-of-cgu-art/.