Fine Art: Gershon Benjamin: The Art of Simplicity

Jim’s of Lambertville is a gallery widely known for its vast collection of works by the Pennsylvania Impressionists. The current exhibit there, however, features 60 paintings by Modernist, Gershon Benjamin.

Benjamin shared a studio with Milton Avery and was part of a circle of noted artists such as Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, John Sloan, Arshile Gorky and the Soyer brothers. His work is less well known, however, because he did not seek publicity nor commercial recognition as did the others. Upon his death in 1985 he left behind a large collection of works and the Gershon Benjamin Foundation was established for the purpose of placing them. The Spanierman Gallery in New York became their exclusive representative. According to Michael McClintock of Jim’s of Lambertville, Jim Alterman purchased the 60 paintings from Spanierman Gallery that now are on exhibit in his gallery in Lambertville.

Benjamin’s body of work includes oils, watercolors, gouache, pastels on paper and board, graphite drawings, and woodblock prints. The paintings cover a range from dark to colorful with some being finely detailed and others, such as “The Train Depot,” where figures are loosely suggested with color strokes.

Benjamin’s works are flat. There is little modeling and much black outlining which seems to hold the objects down on the picture plane. I found nothing lyrical or “pretty” in his works, but I found them enchanting. As if there is a story behind the image that is just waiting to be told. This especially in “At MoMa, The Turner Exhibit” a watercolor on black paper in which he shows us a figure in black standing straight, in an arms-at-its sides posture, before a wide dark frame surrounding a blue, raw sienna and yellow tempest with a tiny boat in the distance seen through a break in the turmoil. And entering Benjamin’s painting from one side is an orange-dressed, black-outlined, non-descript figure. You have to wonder what Benjamin was saying with this painting. Why was a painting of Turner, who was a Romantic, portrayed in this manner? And what would Benjamin’s painting be without the bright orange figure entering?

There are many figurative works in the collection. In some, the people are faceless, some have just some of their facial features and others are fully detailed. The portraits on display have all been brought to completion, including his “Self Portrait” done in pastels in 1971. Portraits, “Jewel” and “Tommy,” though relatively flat in portrayal and outlined in black, present the figures in casual clothes and relaxed postures. It is interesting to note that while their faces are detailed, Benjamin never dealt with their hands.

The exhibition includes a portrait done in oils on canvas of his friend Milton Avery and an oil on board portrait of Avery’s wife, Sally Avery.   And there is “Portrait of Gershon Benjamin” done by Milton Avery in oils in 1945. Benjamin and Avery worked side by side and often painted one another when models were not available.

A full-color catalog accompanying the exhibition explains the fact that, though prolific, Benjamin, unlike the others in his circle, worked “from dusk to dawn in the art department of the New York Sun newspaper for many years.” It explains that painting was a labor of love for him and he was not interested in competing with his friends. “As he saw it, his career was at the newspaper, his passion was creating art.”

And create he did. You can see his passion in the figurative drawings and pastels on display. You can see him exploring and yearning to understand the human form. And you can see how working dusk to dawn at the newspaper played into the way he portrayed his environment. In “Sleeping City,” a gouache on black paper, he presents dark structures against a night sky. And in “New York,” an oil on gouache, both done in 1940, he shows us the same structures in the light of day.

The catalog points out that by the mid-1930s Benjamin was described as an Expressionist and was included in an exhibit titled Paintings by Selected Young Americans. Two works in this Lambertville exhibit that were done in that period are “Lee J.Cobb #3” an oil on canvas capturing a violinist playing his instrument. And “The Gossips,” a watercolor portraying three almost faceless women sitting close together looking at a book one is holding, while another is holding a cigarette casually between her fingers.

Later, Benjamin and his wife, Zelda, began spending time in Free Acres, in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. A community that attracted artists of every stripe. On display is his pastel on board, “Ocean Grove Beach” that loosely suggests figures on the sand and a few beach umbrellas. Although this appears to be just a quick sketch, it successfully captures a day at the Jersey shore. There are other landscapes depicting a “Vermont Landscape,” “Central Park,” and even a large oil portrayal of the Grand Canyon.

This is a collection that offers everything from “Jo-Jo,” a sleeping tuxedo cat to “Moonlight on the Brooklyn Bridge” and although Benjamin was inclined to create his work for his own desire and need to do so and chose to not market it, there is now this intriguing body of work to be enjoyed right here in Lambertville.

Also on continuing display at Jim’s of Lambertville are new additions to Jim Alterman’s vast collection of The Pennsylvania Impressionists.

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: Gershon Benjamin: The Art of Simplicity

WHERE: Jim’s of Lambertville, 6 Bridge Street, Lambertville

WHEN: Through March. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Wednesday-Friday;                       10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Saturday & Sunday

CONTACT: 609-397-7700. wwwl.jimsoflambertville.com

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