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Karl Benjamin, Professor Emeritus and Renowned Abstract Painter, Has Died

Karl Benjamin in his studio
"No.8" - 1965. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist.

"No.8" - 1965. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist.

Karl J. Benjamin, professor emeritus at Pomona College and a renowned painter, died on Thursday at the age of 86 of congestive heart failure.

Benjamin created an acclaimed body of dazzling, geometric artwork celebrating color. “Karl Benjamin is a seminal figure in abstract classicism, more commonly known as ‘hard edge’ painting,” says Steve Comba, assistant director of Pomona College Museum of Art. “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.

Born on December 29, 1925, in Chicago, Benjamin joined the Pomona College faculty as artist-in-residence in 1979, following a 20-year career teaching in public elementary and middle school. He was appointed the Loren Babcock Miller Professor of Fine Arts in 1991. When he retired in 1994, he was granted emeritus status.

It was a school principal and his elementary students who led him to painting. The principal told him needed to include 45 minutes of art instruction in his classes. So, according to a 2007 Los Angeles Times article, “I brought some crayons and paper, and the kids drew trucks, trees, mountains. That was boring, so I said, ‘No trucks, no trees.’” And, according to the article, the students began to do work that really interested him. In a 2005 Claremont Courier article, he remarked that his students gave him “blind courage”: “The students kept doing terrific things. That these kids could do these types of art meant that all humans could, which meant that I could.”

Benjamin began to paint in the 1950s and experimenting with oils leading him to Claremont Graduate University and a MFA degree. In teaching art at Pomona, he told the TSL in 1994, he saw his role as encouraging individuals to express themselves. “I assume that talent is not the issue. Everyone has the ability to make images that are totally meaningful and pleasing to the person. Everyone is scared. It is the job of the teacher to help students feel confident enough to take the chances to make decent art…By [college] age, many people are pretty inhibited. They’ve been told since they were five that they aren’t artistic…. It’s exciting to see students come up with things. I get a lot out of watching [their] development…. These 15 years [at Pomona] have been very important.”

Benjamin’s paintings have been exhibited throughout the U.S. and are part of collections that include the National Museum of American Art, 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. Recent exhibitions include retrospectives at the Claremont Museum of Art and the Oceanside Museum of Art, and inclusion in several Pacific Standard Time exhibitions in Southern California, including the J. Paul Getty Museum.

In a 2007 survey of Benjamin’s painting at Louis Stern Fine Arts, critic Dave Hickey wrote, “I can think of no other artists whose paintings exude the joy and pleasure of being an artist with more intensity than Karl Benjamin’s nor any other artists whose long teaching career left no blemish of cynicism on his practice.”

Among the many museums that have his works in their permanent collection, the Pomona College Museum of Art is fortunate to have nine of his paintings. His generosity to the College’s Museum extended beyond his own work. His donations over the years included 38 works, by artists such as Emerson Woelffer, Gary Lang, Frederick Hammersley, Tony Delap, Helen Pashgian and others.

Benjamin is survived by his wife, Beverly; daughters Kris Benjamin Jones, of Claremont ,and Beth Benjamin, of Boulder Creek, Calif.; son Bruce Benjamin, of Santa Cruz; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

More of Benjamin's work can be seen at The L.A. Times also has an obituary, which you can read here