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Karl Benjamin: An openhearted spirit fueled a passion for painting

All the things Karl Benjamin valued most—art, music, family, and friends who had become like family—were in evidence at a celebration of his life held Saturday, October 13 at Bridges Hall of Music.

Mr. Benjamin, a renowned abstract painter and longtime Claremonter, died in July at the age of 86

The memorial offered an opportunity for the community to say goodbye and to acknowledge the depth of his artistic and personal impact.

Scenes from Mr. Benjamin’s life and images of his canvases, known for their vivid juxtaposition of colors and shapes, were projected on a screen accompanied by Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” while a hushed crowd gathered in the 600-seat venue.

After a welcome by Cecilia Conrad, acting president of Pomona College, and a live cello performance, friends and family took to the stage with tributes and remembrances.

The first presenter was David Pagel, associate professor of art at Claremont Graduate University, who shared that, “As a person, Karl was every bit as sensitive and generous as his paintings.”

Mr. Pagel said it was a particular treat to watch Mr. Benjamin select the recipient of the Karl Benjamin Painting Award, a scjp;arsjo[ pffered annually to a promising CGU art student. The 2 would settle in, with sandwiches made by Mr. Benjamin’s wife Beverly or picked up from Wolfe’s market, and commence reviewing the portfolios of hopeful applicants.

“It was a terrific education watching a non-verbal intelligence at work. He would zero in on the heart and soul of the work in seconds,” Mr. Pagel said, noting that the key question for Mr. Benjamin was, “Did the work have ‘juice’?”

“Toward the end, he didn’t talk much,” Mr. Pagel continued. “But his eyes would just dance when he saw something cooking in the paintings.”

Mr. Benjamin stopped painting in the final years of his life, but had been so prolific that there were always new surprises. Mr. Pagel described going through a storage facility with Mr. Benjamin in preparation for an exhibition of the painter’s work, with their efforts yielding “a treasure trove of the best work to come out of California.”  

There were dozens of canvases spanning from the 1950s to the present, many of which Mr. Benjamin had not seen in decades. “He was almost looking at the work as if somebody else had made it. He had this look on his face, like, ‘Aw shucks, that artist was pretty good,’” Mr. Pagel said.

Mr. Benjamin is known for his years teaching at Pomona College, where he was professor emeritus, and at Claremont Graduate University. He had a previous career, however, as an elementary school teacher. He taught first in Bloomington, California and then in the Chino Valley Unified School District from 1953 to 1976.

Mitzi Wells, who was a sixth-grade student in the first class Mr. Benjamin taught in Bloomington, took a few moments to share her early impression. Mr. Benjamin, who had not yet begun painting, was asked to institute an art component in his curriculum, in compliance with new state mandates. He may not have been experienced, but he jumped in with enthusiasm, according to Ms. Wells

“Our class was given the freedom of expression with crayons and chalk. We were asked to fill up the space with beautiful colors and interesting shapes,” she said, emphasizing how Mr. Benjamin’s instructions would later be echoed in his own artistic oeuvre.

Along with providing an eye-opening introduction to the creative process, one that impacted her entire life, having Mr. Benjamin as a teacher provided another perk for Ms. Wells and her fellow 10- and 11-year-old girls.

“All the girls in our class thought our teacher was cute,” she said.

Mr. Benjamin’s children, Bruce and Beth Benjamin, each took a few moments to honor their father. The younger Mr. Benjamin praised his dad, saying he was not just a painter but a “sacred geometrist” who narrated his childhood with stories told in color. Ms. Benjamin, a writer, shared what it was like to live with her father, who maintained a rare balance between his artistic and familial priorities, in a poem called “The Artist at Home.”

In a second poem, she shared a plan she made when her father’s health began to fail. He was famous for wearing T-shirts, often emblazoned with thought-provoking and left-leaning political slogans. When he died, she said, she planned to make his many T-shirts into prayer flags. She would hang them from a red rope in the backyard of the Benjamin house, displaying them for 30 days, “all those slogans, skywriting, bouncing in the wind.”

After the ceremony, Ms. Benjamin noted that the family had followed through with the idea, turning her dad’s T-shirts into prayer flags and displaying them with flourish.

Louis Stern, the owner of Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood, the gallery that represented Mr. Benjamin for the final decade of his life, also spoke. Mr. Benjamin was certainly a dazzling painter, but Mr. Stern said he was equally struck by the Claremont painter’s personality.

He was used to thinking of artists as somewhat brooding and often isolated. Nothing could be further from what Mr. Stern found when he first visited Mr. Benjamin at home, among his children and grandchildren.

“I was struck by the infectious love and affection,” he said. “I was very caught off guard—I didn’t expect it.”

After a piano solo, Reverend Catharine Grier Carlson, retired chaplain of the Claremont Colleges, delivered the benediction, urging the audience to honor Mr. Benjamin “by letting that vibrant and perfect color animate every part of our lives.”

The people who attended the celebration had an opportunity to soak up Mr. Benjamin’s lessons in color at a reception at the Pomona College Museum of Art. Guests mingled in the Lyon Garden, enjoying a spread of pastries and coffee, and had the opportunity to step into the museum to visit with a geometric painting in the college’s permanent collection, a vivid assemblage of yellow, orange and blue polygons known simply as #3, 1969.  

“His incredible ability to juxtapose colors, that was a gift, truly,” marveled George Cuttress, owner of Cuttress Fine Art in Pomona.

 Mr. Cuttress had the opportunity to host a show for Mr. Benjamin many years ago, at a time before he began to attract international critical notice. Mr. Benjamin was amazed when his exhibition netted the sale of 5 paintings, the gallery owner said. Those patrons made a wise investment, according to Mr. Cuttress, gesturing to the museum display.

“I know very few artists who could step up to a canvas and bring in so many colors and make it work. Look how the color wraps around the side of the canvas. He was a true craftsman and artist.”

—Sarah Torribo

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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