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Through June 25, 2007 at the Claremont Museum of Art, Claremont

by Jeanne Willette

The Claremont Museum of Art.
Photo credit: Schenck Photo.

Clarmont Museum of Art opening night.
Photo credit: Schenck Photo.

The Claremont Museum
of Art exterior view.
Photo credit: Schenck Photo.

Tucked away in the 909 heartland, Claremont is a sleepy little college town, with tree lined streets, Craftsman houses. . . .and now a new museum, located in the former College Heights Lemon Packing House. The Director of the Claremont Museum of Art, William Moreno, has a plan for the museum: through a program of cutting edge exhibitions in contemporary art, make Claremont an art world destination. Fresh from The Mexican Museum of San Francisco, Moreno is placing this new museum “on a trajectory to become a regional museum of international significance.” But Claremont is not Bilbao, and this museum is not an isolated temple of art, housing holy art relics for pilgrims of culture, like the Getty citadel. As envisioned by Moreno, the Claremont Museum is a new model for art exhibition spaces, dissolving the barriers between art and community. The Museum is integrated into a heterogeneous site, combining studio live-work spaces, retail shops, and restaurants. The Museum itself is 10,000 square feet, with an additional 1,000 of storage space for the rapidly growing permanent collection. Offerings from this collection are on rotating display in a front room near the gift shop, itself well stocked with custom museum products.

With rising gas prices and ever worsening traffic on the West Side, Claremont could well become an alternative destination for residents of the San Gabriel Valley and Riverside County. Located between two freeways and next to the train station, the Packing House was renovated by architect Mark von Wodtke. The $10 million transformation is marked by the memory of the orange groves that once surrounded the town and is painted in tones of dark green and charcoal gray with handsome leaf-colored, highly polished concrete floors. This is a “green” museum, with solar panels on the roof and repurposed hardwood floors upstairs. At the heart of the Packing House, The Claremont Art Museum is the product of determined community activism, which turned aside a demolition proposal and a jail conversion, instead successfully retaining the old Packing House as a site for the Museum.

An ideal community to support such an ambitious undertaking, Claremont has a distinguished art pedigree: it is the home of the first mural by a Mexican artist, José Clemente Orozco’s “Prometheus” (1930); five colleges with three major art programs that have produced many distinguished graduates: Chris Burden, James Turrell, Kim Dingle. The Claremont Colleges have also boasted more than a few renowned professors: Samella Lewis, Millard Sheets, Roland Reiss, and Karl Benjamin.

It is fitting that Benjamin, whose career dates back more than a half century, opened the museum with a retrospective exhibition. Benjamin and I sat on an exquisite handmade walnut bench with stainless steel dove tail joinery, on loan from a Venice artist, and discussed his long and celebrated career as a painter and a teacher at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate School. He was a rarity in his generation: a self-taught artist who went directly into abstraction, eschewing the customary passage through representation. Although Benjamin explored the art of Cézanne and de Kooning, he came to hard-edge painting independently, working with oil for the intensity of color.

Benjamin is an instinctive colorist who considers the hues he works with to be analogous to musical chords. Colors call out to other colors as he arranges shapes carefully to maintain openness. In the tradition of an almost-vanished craft, paint is laid down in one smooth stroke and is burnished with a guitar pick. A visitor to the Museum makes a trajectory through a long career dedicated to geometric abstractions of color harmonies, ranging from the ochres that call to mind Duchamp’s early Cubist works, to vibrating designs are just shy of Victor Vasarely’s Op Art. In 2000 “#20” (1985) appeared in the Green Room of the Academy Awards, a fitting honor for one of Los Angeles’ finest painters.
This new museum that debuts with this fitting tribute to Benjamin was twenty years in the making. The inspiration of two women hiking the Padua Hills in 1987, Marion Stewart and Marguerite Mcintosh are both wives of local artists and citizens of Claremont. Thanks to their tireless dedication the dream has been realized. Now all that remains is the long task of growth and development for the picturesque town to become the home of what we call in this arena of endeavor a destination museum. Let’s hope for that happy ending that predicts: “If you build it; they will come.”

Karl Benjamin, "Markers,"
1955, oil on canvas, 30 x 48".

Karl Benjamin, "#15," 1968,
oil on canvas, 50 x 50".

Karl Benjamin, "#7," 1995,
oil on canvas, 44 x 56".