Lisa N. Peters
A few years ago, the gallery began to handle the estate of a little-known artist named Gershon Benjamin (1899-1985). One day we learned that Benjamin’s archives would be coming our way, courtesy of the estate’s executor, but we could not have imagined what we would receive: nine full boxes of untouched papers, photographs, letters, exhibition catalogues, and other memorabilia. Before the boxes arrived, we knew that Benjamin had a connection with Milton Avery (1885-1965), but as we went through the papers we discovered that this association was far more significant and enduring than we had imagined. Benjamin painted and drew Milton and his wife Sally frequently, and Avery created a number of portraits of Benjamin. Photographs of the two artists together (along with their wives), letters, and shows in which both took part emerged, along with many references to their mutual friends, including Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Our 2008 exhibition, Over Seven Decades: The Art of Gershon Benjamin explored many of these connections.
Benjamin and Avery felt an immediate kinship from their meeting in 1925, and they sustained a close friendship until Avery’s death, twenty years before Benjamin’s. The artists came from very different backgrounds. Escaping oppression in Romania, Benjamin’s family immigrated when he was two to Montreal, where he grew up and studied art at the Royal Canadian Academy before moving to New York City in 1923. A descendant of an old New England family, Avery was born in upstate New York and raised in East Hartford, Connecticut, studying at the School of the Art Society of Hartford before moving to New York City in 1925. The artists and their wives lived in the same building in 1927-28, the Lincoln Arcade, an office building at 65th and Broadway that had been converted to artists’ studios.
At the time they became acquainted Avery and Benjamin were both moving away from the classical-academic tradition, in which they had been steeped, and were adopting a range of new influences, including the work of Matisse and Picasso in particular. Along with their circle of artist-friends, both resisted the pressure to conform to the nationalism of American Regionalism, believing that art, as a universal language, should convey feeling rather than doctrine. Both were proponents of brevity, using line, form, and color to emphasize what mattered about a subject.
In Woman Reading (ca. 1950), among our monthly new acquisitions, Benjamin used gouache with spontaneity and control, defining areas of muted, refined color with fluid, yet precise lines. Images of women reading have a long iconographic history in art. Here Benjamin’s theme is the concentration that this activity requires. Modifying the proportions of the figure so that it fits tightly into the pictorial space, creating a continuous line from the woman’s bent neck through her left arm, which supports her head, and cropping her right arm, its position implying the book that is out of our view, Benjamin captures his subject expressively, omitting anything that might be extraneous, as is in keeping with an image of such full absorption. Both Benjamin and his actor-wife Zelda were avid readers; thus the work is endowed with the candor of personal experience.
For another post on Gershon Benjamin, click here.