Karl Benjamin loved to make rules—and then break them.
In 1959, “Four Abstract Classicists” ran at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The following year, the show traveled to London and Belfast with a new name, “West Coast Hard Edge.” The seminal exhibition featured the work of Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin and brought into focus the unique brand of geometric abstraction emerging from California at the turn of the 1960s.
Though the term “abstract classicism” didn’t stick—none of the artists liked it, apparently—“hard edge,” coined by the critic and show organizer Jules Langsner, did. “Abstract Classism is hard-edged painting,” Langsner wrote in the catalogue. “Forms are finite, flat, rimmed by a hard clean edge.” Unlike the Abstract Expressionism that was still romancing New York, this West Coast evolution of abstraction was less emotional and not action-oriented. But it had a deep, intuitive relationship with color. Langsner wrote, “Ordinarily color serves as a descriptive or emotive element in painting. Its relation to the viewer tends to be more visceral than cerebral. But in these paintings color is not an independent force…. Form gains its existence through color and color its being through form.”
In his 1974 book Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945–1970, artist and critic Peter Plagens posited that the hard-edge style developed from Los Angeles’ “desert air, youthful cleanliness, spatial expanse, architectural tradition” and an optimistic belief in art’s capability to realize a human need for visual and intellectual pleasure.
This last part of Plagens’ appraisal seems particularly applicable to Benjamin. The critic Dave Hickey wrote in a catalogue essay for “Dance the Line: Paintings by Karl Benjamin,” a 2007 show at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood, “Even today, I can think of no other artist whose paintings exude the joy and pleasure of being an artist with more intensity than Karl Benjamin’s.”
By Sarah E. Fensom