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Thursday, July 26, 2012
Claremont Graduate University (CGU) is mourning the loss of alumnus, former professor, and nationally acclaimed artist Karl Benjamin, who died on July 26 at the age of 86.
Benjamin earned his MA from CGU in 1960 and settled in Claremont as an art professor at both CGU and Pomona College. Though he retired from teaching more than a decade ago, he kept close ties to CGU and held significant influence in the university's art program.
"We have lost a cherished alumnus, a wonderful teacher, and a dear friend," CGU President Deborah Freund said. "Even through his last days Karl remained a dedicated mentor to generations of CGU art students. We will miss him terribly."
His work has been featured in museums throughout the country and world, including several in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the Whitney Museum in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
Benjamin began his career working in an abstract expressionist style, but abandoned it in the late 1950s to focus on geometry and color. His work fell out of fashion in the 1970s and 80s, but roared back in the 90s, when a new generation of artists discovered it.
One of them was David Pagel, current chairman of CGU's Art Department.
"It blew my mind how good and fresh his work was," Pagel said. "It was like this treasure trove of great art that people didn't know about. He was an inspiration."
Even as his fame grew, Benjamin kept a keen interest in CGU students and their work. He regularly visited their studios and attended their exhibition openings. Every year he handpicked a student to receive the Karl and Beverly Benjamin Fellowship in Art.
CGU Art Professor Michael Brewster, a longtime friend and colleague, called him a "modern master."
Benjamin taught students how to lead a life dedicated to art, Brewster said. At a time when many artists were mired in theoretical musings about the meaning of art, Benjamin reveled in the experience of making it.
"An art hero has left us," Brewster said. "He was a shining example to the hundreds of students who studied with him."
Benjamin will be featured in an oral history series on CGU art alumni scheduled to open at the university's East and Peggy Phelps galleries on Sept. 4.
He is survived by his wife, Beverly, their two daughters, a son, and many grandchildren.
Photo: Karl Benjamin in his studio, July 14, 2011. Photo by Jim McHugh. Courtesy of Louis Stern Fine Arts.
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