Update: The Karl Benjamin painting sold for $37,500.
What you see: Laguna Seascape II, a 1954 work by the late Karl Benjamin. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.
Who was Karl Benjamin, and how does he fit in with mid-century California artists? He was a key part of the hard-edge movement, a term coined by Jules Langsner. He put together The Abstract Classicists. Benjamin was in the show, and it was the birth of hard-edge painting.
How prolific was Benjamin? I know a catalog raisonné on him is underway. Do its authors have a notion of his productivity? I’m not sure about the number of works he produced in his lifetime, but I’m sure it’s a hefty number.
It seems that Benjamin took an unusual path to becoming an artist, in that it wasn’t his primary goal. Could you talk about how his career evolved? He had studied at Northwestern and joined the Navy in World War II. Then he moved to the west coast and started teaching at an elementary school. That led him to his interest in the fine arts. He went to Claremont Graduate School for art. It was a good move, because it had a thriving art scene in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. That’s probably why his career took off. He had his first solo show in 1954 though he had only been painting for four years at that point.
The Karl Benjamin painting you’re offering, Laguna Seascape II, dates to 1954. Was it in that solo show? It was! The Karl Benjamin estate has a copy of the original checklist, and the painting has a label from the show on the back. It’s great to have confirmation it was in the show.
So that 1954 exhibition was Karl Benjamin’s breakthrough? Yes, and he was obviously building up to it. 1954 to 1955 was when he started to really move into the style he became best-known for. You see his style start to crystalize. He does semi-representational pieces and starts moving into fully abstract pieces.
Are early Karl Benjamin paintings prized by collectors though they don’t match the fully abstract aesthetic of his later work? Benjamin is one of the rare cases where his early works are very desirable and sought after.
This is a small question, but I wanted to ask it. This Karl Benjamin painting is called Laguna Seascape II. Do we know where Laguna Seascape I is? I don’t know. We’ve offered a work by him called North of Santa Barbara Coast II, and the checklist for the 1954 show had both I and II, but it only had Laguna Seascape II. It’s possible that Laguna Seascape I is out there. I don’t know where.
Is the seascape in the Karl Benjamin painting a real, identifiable place in Laguna Beach, California, or is it his own invention? It’s interesting, because he never lived in Laguna Beach that I’m aware. His parents lived on the Santa Barbara coast. I don’t know what interest Laguna Beach had for him. I’m not sure what the significance was.
Are Karl Benjamin paintings of abstract landscapes relatively rare? They are relatively rare because he did move into pure abstraction pretty quickly. He only did landscapes for seven or eight years, and he was fully abstract for four decades.
Could you talk about the use of color in this Karl Benjamin painting? In his early works, the color is much more muted, which makes sense if he’s trying to do a seascape. He used bright Pop colors later in his career.
What is the Karl Benjamin painting like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? There’s much more of a painterly quality to this piece, almost a pebbly texture to it, which you see in his earlier works. I don’t know how he got the texture on the pieces. His later style is more flat and perfect. A lot of hard-edge people put a lot of varnish on top [of their works] to give them a sheen and obscure the brushstrokes. That was the hard-edge look.
How has the Karl Benjamin painting market changed over time? The J. Paul Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time initiative was a major boost to California artists. Karl Benjamin certainly benefitted from the increased exposure it provided. It was a city-wide initiative with various exhibits about artists who were active from 1945 to 1980. One of the main exhibits had a really beautiful piece by Karl Benjamin. That helped his career. Since then, his market has been pretty steady.
Does this sale mark the first time this Karl Benjamin painting has come to auction? Yes. Early in his career, before he was well-established, he did a lot of exchanges for artwork, or gave pieces to his friends. This person [who first owned it] was a colleague of Benjamin’s. The painting has been exhibited, but it’s never been offered.
What’s the world auction record for Benjamin? Was it set at LAMA? It was set with us. It was a piece from a similar period, a 1955 work offered in 2013. It was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 and realized $71,875.
Was the record-setting Karl Benjamin painting an abstract landscape, like this one? It was untitled, and had a similar color pattern. I don’t think it’s a landscape, but it was more when he was moving into pure abstraction.
Could this Karl Benjamin painting set a new record for the artist? The 1955 untitled piece was a great piece, but so is this. It really depends.
Why will this Karl Benjamin painting stick in your memory? It is very evocative of the seaside, that sort of calm you find with the sea. There’s just something about it that’s therapeutic.
Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
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