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January 10 - April 10, 2004 at the Louis Stern Gallery, West Hollywood

by Margarita Nieto

“I.F. (Interlocking Forms)”,
1958, o/c, 22 x 14”.

“Interlocking Forms (violet, burnt
umber)", 1958, o/c, 40 x 30".

“Green Moon with Windows,"
1957, o/c, 40 x 30".

“Totem Group III," 1957, o/c, 50 x 30".

"Chino Hills," 1957, o/c, 22 x 34".
In 1959, art critic Jules Langsner organized an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that affirmed the existence, in California, of a kind of abstract painting which in his own words was "hard edge." Langsner's Four Abstract Classicists as the show was entitled, included Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley and Karl Benjamin. The following year, revised and renamed West Coast Hard Edge, the exhibition opened in London and Belfast, establishing both the artists and their approach to painting on an international level. In Karl Benjamin. Paintings from 1950 to 1965 viewers can again view and review one of the "abstract classicists" whose work initiated a new discourse in the history of West Coast painting. That discourse held tangents and tenets relating to the long history of geometric and nonobjective painting, and nodded to East Coast Abstract Expressionism.

Benjamin's response to those closed parameters has been the steadfast insistence on color and form as inseparable or, as he has stated: "Color is the subject matter of painting. Regardless of style or content, it is the material from which paintings are made." In this we hear a recapitulation of Wassily Kandinsky's statement that "Painting has two weapons at her disposal: 1. Colour. 2. Form.” In fact, the fifteen years sampled here, and in particular, 1954-1958, are strikingly similar to Kandinsky's Swedish years and his corresponding 1905-1907 shift from representation to abstraction.

In two works that date from 1958, I.F. (Interlocking Forms), and Interlocking Forms (violet, burnt umber), Benjamin demonstrates color dominance, or what Langner called "colorform," on surface and plane. Long, vertical, jagged forms overlap the entire space. In I.F. (one of an ongoing series of paintings so named) the title makes minimal reference to form, yet hues of brown, gray, brick red, peach and orange create a vertical dynamic rhythm, stressing color as the subject/object of the work. Interlocking Forms (violet/umber), on the other hand, stresses the same domination of surface through a similar series of jagged, saw-toothed forms in a more subdued palette of violet and umber. By this point in time Benjamin is exploring the subject of his future work, the phenomenon of color/form as an entity in and of itself. It is precisely that these formal components function as subject, and the decisive omission of representational subjects, that mark Benjamin as a classic modernist painter.

This transition is evident in the paintings on view from 1957, in which Benjamin was still engaged in bridging the object-in-the-world with the object-within-the-work. That is, he was still acknowledging representation and the traditional language of painting. The key to that leap lies in the titles of these works, for the painter relies on the a priori perception that words create in themind of the viewer. Totem Group III, for example, features the same jagged vertical forms, yet in a more rigid and more controlled manner. The relationship between the form and its counterpart--the totem with its symbolic resonance--is enhanced by that language. Chino Hills, grounded in brown, black and green, features arrow-like diagonal forms of green, light yellows and pinks which cross over black, brick red and green triangular shapes. There is a direct reference through the title to a landscape of a known local region.

Much the same occurs in the well-known Green Moon with Windows, another of the 1957 works. It is grounded in shades of beige, black and green against which rectilinear and trapezoid shapes float freely. It is the association with the title which tricks your eye into "seeing" the green window referred to in the title. Yet the forms themselves already correspond to another visual language, to a transformation into an abstract purity that soonafter became explicit.

Benjamin understood and explored the way in which language underlies our manner of seeing. Having already freed the object within the work, shifting from implicit representation to robust nonobjectivity came as he detached the painting simultaneously from pre-formed associations with depiction and verisimilitude.