|Benkert in the Anomina Studio, 1968.
Ernst Benkert was born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in the nearby suburb of Winnetka. Sunday comics like "Dick Tracy" and "Little Orphan Annie" triggered an early interest in drawing; he went on to contribute cartoons to his junior high school newspaper. Other formative art experiences included receiving a set of Anchor stone building blocks in 1937 and seeing the Picasso exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940. Upon graduating from high school in 1946, Benkert drove across the country and then joined the US Army. The following year he served in Occupied Japan, where he was able to visit Kyoto and purchase woodblock prints.
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After his discharge from the army in 1947, Benkert took evening drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. He then entered Harvard College, where he earned a degree in art history and drew for the undergraduate literary magazine The Harvard Advocate.
On graduating from Harvard in 1953, Benkert returned to Winnetka to teach art at the North Shore Country Day School for two years. He spent the following two years traveling and studying art in Europe, attending Oskar Kokoschka's summer school of painting in Salzburg and life drawing classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.
In 1957 Benkert began a two-year teaching fellowship in studio art at Oberlin College while working toward a Master's degree. The following year he met Francis Hewitt there, who then introduced him to Edwin Mieczkowski. In 1959 Benkert had his first exhibition of geometric paintings executed during his Master's studies. Instead of completing his thesis on Josef Albers, Benkert moved to New York City. In New York, his first job was teaching English at the Allen-Stevenson School. Donald Judd, the school's carpentry teacher, became a friend as the two identified each other as artists. Later in 1964, Judd participated in an Anonima Group panel on Geometric Abstraction.
In 1960 Benkert married and moved to Springs, Long Island where he set up a studio. That summer he shared his studio with Hewitt and Mieczkowski. Working together for the first time as the Anonima Group, the three artists systematically explored the psychology of perception in its relation to art. The group worked together at Benkert's studio in Springs during the summer of 1961 as well. In the summers of 1963 and 1965, they used the studio of Benkert's father, an architect, in Mill Spring, North Carolina.
Benkert moved to Paris for the winter of 1961, where he met Cesar Domela, the youngest member of the De Stijl group, as well as Nelly Van Doesburg, the widow of Theo Van Doesburg. In 1962 he moved to London on the advice of Anthony Hill, the English Constructivist, who became a life-long friend. His European contacts went on to include the Polish Constructivist Henryk Stazewski and De Stijl founder and Constructivist sculptor George Vantongerloo. In the years following his return to New York in 1962, he met the American abstract artists Burgoyne Diller and Charmion Von Wiegand, as well as Ad Reinhardt, who became a particular friend of the Anonima Group. Andor Weininger, a former Bauhaus student and founder and leader of the Bauhaus Band, also became an intimate of the Anonima Group at this time.
During the 1960s Benkert showed often with the Anonima Group, including The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and group exhibitions at the Denise René Gallery in Paris and the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1965. In 1966 the Anonima Group had exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the Galeria Foksal in Warsaw, and the Academy of Art in Krakow. In 1966 Benkert began a 25 year teaching career at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
The Anonima Group's 1968 project "Size Change" had the greatest impact on Benkert's work, and he continued to use it as a source through the 1970s. After the Anonima Group left its West 28th Street loft, Benkert took over the late Eva Hesse's loft on the Bowery. Between 1970 and 1975 Benkert spent summers in Woodstock, New York and Perugia, Italy working in the studios of his friend, the artist and writer Gioia Timpanelli.
In 1974 Benkert had a solo exhibition at the Gallery Swart in Amsterdam and in 1977 he participated in the Open Studios project at P.S. 1 in Queens, New York. His grid drawings were the subject of an exhibition at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, organized by Sarah Henry in 1980. Benkert had a retrospective of works on paper at Artists Space in New York in 1983, curated by Linda Shearer. In 2005 he had a retrospective exhibition of works on paper at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
In 1985 Benkert moved to Burlington, Vermont, commuting weekly to continue teaching at Pratt. He also taught at the University of Vermont and spent summers working with Frank Hewitt at his studio in East Corinth, Vermont. Benkert retired from Pratt in 1990 and in 1998 moved to Brooklyn where he now resides.
Benkert received many fellowships and grants, including a New York State Creative Artists Public Service award for drawing, a Gramercy Foundation grant for travel in Europe, a National Endowment for the Arts grant for drawing, a National Foundation for the Arts grant for painting, and a Pollock-Krasner grant.
Museums with Benkert's work include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Robert Hull Fleming Museum, Burlington, Vermont; Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Most of Benkert's drawing books and notebooks are housed in the Special Collections Library of the University of Vermont in Burlington.