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City sells two major works, installs Benjamin print at city hall

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Many visual artists are fortunate in that their work can be incorporated into myriad communal spaces and remain in view, and in the public’s consciousness, indefinitely.

A painter or sculptor may have their art accessible in museums or public spaces long after they’ve died, ensuring their legacy for generations to come.

But sometimes an important piece of art languishes out of public view. Take for instance the late Karl Benjamin’s “Form in Red and Orange,” which the city of Claremont purchased in 1959, before the artist was widely known.

Despite its value—a 2017 appraisal set it at $85,000—Mr. Benjamin’s painting had been somewhat neglected over the years, relegated to back offices at various city facilities. It was in need of a costly restoration if it was to be brought back into a condition suitable for public display.

Insuring the piece was also expensive, and locating a suitably secure public area in which to display it proved difficult. So, in 2018, the Claremont City Council approved a Public Art Committee recommendation that the city “deaccession,” or sell “Form in Red and Orange.”

When Chris Toovey, a founding member of the Public Art Committee, learned the city was preparing to sell the painting, he was “crestfallen.”

Mr. Toovey, an “off and on” painter himself, said Mr. Benjamin, “a world renowned American artist, that was specifically a Claremont artist, a guy that chose to stay in Claremont and live and work, and still be world renowned—was disappearing from public view.”

So, he set about learning all he could about “Form in Red and Orange,” in hope of finding a way to keep the painting in the city’s collection.

He arranged to have a look at the piece in person, “because I was a little miffed and put out that [the Public Art Committee] was just rubber stamping this thing,” he said.

He learned the 60-1/8 inch x 40 inch oil painting was the first-place winner of a 1959 Claremont-sponsored Art Faire competition, which also recognized “East of Claremont” by watercolorist Phil Dike, and “Quietly” by Frederick Hammersley.

The city picked up Mr. Benjamin’s early “hard edge” painting, as well as the other two prize winning works, for $350 each.

“You know, it was 1959, and that was a reasonable amount of money at the time,” Mr. Toovey said.

It turned out Mr. Benjamin’s painting wasn’t the only valuable piece of art in the city’s collection that had fallen into disrepair. Mr. Dike’s “East of Claremont,” and Mr. Hammersley’s “Quietly,” had both also been neglected. A 2017 appraisal put the value of “East of Claremont” at $75,000 and “Quietly” at $150,000.

“One of the issues with the city was, even if they could pay for the restoration, the security and maintenance was going to be kind of daunting and expensive,” Mr. Toovey said. “The idea was to find a way around that difficulty.”

In 2018, Pomona College purchased “Form in Red and Orange” from the city for $60,000. Following its ongoing restoration it will be on view at its new Benton Museum, set to open in the fall.

The proceeds from the sale were deposited in the city’s public art fund, to be used for future art projects.

According to Mr. Toovey, Pomona College is spending the $25,000 gap in purchase price to valuation on the restoration and a fund for future maintenance.

The city sold Mr. Hammersley’s “Quietly” in 2018 to the Albuquerque-based Frederick Hammersley Foundation for $100,000.

That same year, after approval by the council and the public art committee, Los Angeles artist Sijia Chen was paid $30,000 from the city’s public art fund to create  “Arbor,” a stainless steel scuplture installed in front of city hall in May 2018.

Mr. Dike’s “East of Claremont” is the only remaining work from the 1959 Art Faire that remains in the city’s possession. It is now being stored professionally in Pomona College Museum of Art’s vault, so that its condition does not deteriorate further.

Begrudgingly accepting the city’s decision to sell “Form in Red and Orange,” Mr. Toovey remained concerned about Mr. Benjamin’s legacy. Though the painting will eventually be on view at the Benton, the city was still, if you’ll pardon the simile, one Benjamin short.

So a compromise was reached. Mr. Benjamin’s widow, Beverly, generously agreed to donate to the city a limited edition artist proof “serigraph,” or silk screen, of another painting, “Stripes (Grey, Blue, Rust, Mustard).”

The print, made in 1980 and valued at $4,500, was unveiled this week at Claremont City Hall. It now hangs in a publicly accessible receptionist’s office, in a spot previously occupied by a nondescript map print. 

It’s an outcome that pleases Mr. Toovey.

The receptionist “wasn’t married to that piece and actually knew Karl Benjamin,” Mr. Toovey said. “She said she would be happy to be present in front of Karl’s piece. So we said that’s pretty good, and that would be the best place.

“I spent a lot of time with Karl Benjamin. I just wanted his work, his work and presence as an artist, to not disappear.”

Mr. Toovey, 68, has lived in or around Claremont since 1958. “I’m an old timer in Claremont,” he said. The 1970 Claremont High School grad earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Pitzer College in 1999.

In 1984 he co-founded Pomona’s dA Gallery, now known as the dA Center for the Arts. He is still involved with the dA, heading up its volunteer board of directors, among other duties.

Mr. Benjamin spent his entire art career in Claremont. He was born in Chicago, and moved to California in 1949 after serving in the US Navy during World War II. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Redlands in 1949. He mounted his first solo show, at Pasadena Art Museum, now The Norton Simon Museum, in 1954. In 1960 he earned a master’s degree from Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University). He won National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1983 and 1989.

He died in 2012 at age 86.

“As a kid, growing up in town, riding my bicycle around, Karl Benjamin’s work was all over town,” Mr. Toovey said. “Not only in the colleges, but it was present at the old city hall and friends’ homes, because a lot of my friends, their folks were art professors or just teachers in town, and knew Karl and Bev. So, I could go in and say, ‘Hey, who made that artwork?’”

“And I just wanted to have the availability for any kid like me back then to come in today and look at piece and go, ‘Who’s that?’”

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