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Claremont Museum of Art Debuts with Exhibition of Former Professor Karl Benjamin's Paintings

The new Claremont Museum of Art is set to open April 15, with its first exhibition featuring the work of influential painter and longtime Pomona College art professor Karl Benjamin. An easy walk from campus, the museum is located in the newly-renovated Claremont Packing House, part of a larger expansion of the Claremont Village that will bring an art-house movie theatre and more nightlife and shopping to the area.

The exhibition, A Conversation with Color: Karl Benjamin, Paintings 1953-1995, will feature 46 paintings spanning 42 years that trace Benjamin’s career, from his early experiments with cubism to works that represent his role as one of the founders of abstract classicism.

Benjamin, who began painting in 1951 while working as a public school teacher, became an artist-in-residence and professor of art at Pomona College in 1979, serving until his retirement in 1994. His paintings have been exhibited throughout the U.S. and are part of collections that include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

“Karl Benjamin is a seminal figure in abstract classicism, more commonly known as ‘hard edge’ painting,” said Steve Comba, who is assistant director of Pomona College Museum of Art and interim curator and registrar for the new museum. “Because of his inventive nature and intuitive, creative instincts, he became part of a group of artists who invented a new form of abstract painting in the early and mid '50s."

In 1959, Benjamin's work was part of a landmark exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that traveled to Europe and secured a national and international reputation for the painter, according to Comba.

The museum's permanent collection will occupy the smaller of the two museum galleries, with works from local artists such as Millard Sheets, Harrison McIntosh and Milford Zornes '34 exhibited on a rotating basis.

All this art will be on the display in the museum's 7,400-square-foot slice of what was once the College Heights Lemon Packing House, built in 1922 and now revamped as a retro-remnant of the area's sunny citrus past. With its skylights, corrugated metal and saw-tooth roof, the building is a cool destination in and of itself, Comba notes. Along with the museum, a jazz club, wine shop, steak house and non-profit used bookstore also have found space on the packing houses' historic hardwood floors. Live-work lofts fill the second story.

Renovation of the Packing House was handled by Arteco Partners, operated by Claremont McKenna alumnus Jerry Tessier. He and his brother, Ed Tessier '91, helped create the vibrant, well-established art colony in neighboring Pomona's downtown, as well as the upstart Emporia Arts District in nearby Ontario.

Claremont, meanwhile, already has a long tradition of artistic excellence cultivated through the colleges. The Pomona College Museum of Art is a the oldest collecting institution in the region, according to Comba, particularly strong in Native American art and 18th to 20th century works on paper, while also tending a growing photography collection.

With the Pomona museum more geared toward student needs, the Claremont undertaking could offer Pomona students a different set of experiences, with the chance to learn about curation and interacting with the public through volunteer or internship opportunities, according to Comba. There's also the possibility of publicity partnerships between the College's museum and Claremont's.

Claremont's museum should help draw visitors to the area's growing array of art venues, which include Pomona's museum, Scripps Colleges' Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Pilgrim Place’s Peterson Museum of Intercultural Art as well as Pomona’s Da Center for the Arts and the American Museum of Ceramic Art, founded by David Armstrong '62.

"The more Starbucks in an area, the more coffee is consumed,'' says Comba. "It helps everybody. It's the same thing with art."

And so, with the Claremont museum's April 15 opening, it looks like the local arts scene is about to get another kick of caffeine.

Claremont Museum of Art public opening
April 15, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
536 W. First Street
The museum will be open Wednesday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is free through May. Beginning June 1, it goes up to $3 for adults but is still free for those under 18.