Karl Benjamin was born in 1925 in Chicago, Illinois. He enrolled at Northwestern University in 1943, leaving later that year to enter the Navy. After three years of service, Benjamin attended the University of Redlands in California, earning a BA in 1949 with a combined major in English literature, history and philosophy. Shortly thereafter he accepted a teaching position at an elementary school in Bloomington, California, marking the beginning of a twenty-nine year teaching career in elementary schools in both Bloomington and Chino.
In 1951 Karl Benjamin began to paint. Lacking any formal art education, he relied on art books and visits to museums and galleries to educate himself. Benjamin’s paintings from the early 1950s consisted of bold brushstrokes and figurative imagery. By the mid-1950s, however, Benjamin had found his artistic voice in pure abstraction. He exhibited these hard-edged geometric and pure color works in 1954 at the Pasadena Art Museum [now the Norton Simon Museum] in his first solo exhibition. In December 1958 Benjamin had another solo exhibition, Paintings by Karl Benjamin: Abstract Classicism at the Long Beach Museum of Art. Although both shows were well received, it was the 1959 blockbuster Four Abstract Classicists, a group exhibition featuring Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin, that truly established Benjamin’s national reputation as an abstract artist. Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the exhibition opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art, then traveled to LACMA, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, England and Queen’s College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The exhibition demonstrated Benjamin’s continued interest in the relationship between form and color and the translation of his ideas into increasingly tight and ordered canvases.
After Four Abstract Classicists, Benjamin was featured in the 1960 exhibition Purist Painting, organized by the American Federation of Arts, which traveled to several major museums. In 1962 Benjamin’s paintings were included in two exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art: Geometric Abstraction in America and 50 Californian Artists. In 1965 Benjamin was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s The Responsive Eye, the groundbreaking exhibition which first presented Op Art to the public in a museum setting. The Responsive Eye traveled to the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri; the Seattle Art Museum, Washington; the Pasadena Art Museum, California, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland.
Karl Benjamin had five solo exhibitions at Esther Robles Gallery in Los Angeles between 1959 and 1965. Benjamin had numerous solo exhibitions at California museums, including Long Beach Museum of Art in 1958, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego in 1961 and 1970, Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1962 and 1968, Laguna Art Museum in 1965, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Galleries in 1986, and the Art Galleries of Claremont Graduate School in 1990.
While enjoying widespread artistic success, Benjamin continued to devote much of his time to teaching. Benjamin became Professor of Art and Artist-in-Residence at Pomona College in 1979 and also taught at Claremont Graduate School from 1979 until 1994. As an art teacher, Benjamin influenced a generation of Californian artists. In 1983 and again in 1989, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for Visual Arts.
In 2007 Benjamin was included in the Orange County Museum of Art’s exhibition Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury and the Columbus Museum of Art’s Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s. In 2008 the Oceanside Museum of Art in California held a retrospective exhibition of Benjamin’s 1960s through 1980s paintings titled The Vibrant Edge. Recently Benjamin was interviewed for and his work was included in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970 in 2011.
Benjamin’s work can be found in many museum collections, including: the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; the Seattle Art Museum, Washington; the Denver Art Museum, Colorado; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; the Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California.
An extensive interview with Karl Benjamin can be found on Geoform.