A painter of portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and the urban scene, Gershon Benjamin sustained an active career for over seven decades. Consistently dedicated to an artistic expression that was personal and honest, Benjamin was not commercially motivated, never wanting to compete with other artists for renown. Although many of his artist-cohorts became famous, notably his close friend Milton Avery, Benjamin was content simply to be able to paint, supported by a job in the art department of the New York Sun. Indeed, it was due to this perspective that his life’s work has remained largely unknown. In his work, drawing on his academic background and many European modernist influences, Benjamin distilled the exhaustive array of visual stimuli that he encountered into reductive, thoughtful images, using form and color to encapsulate his emotive responses to his subjects. He evolved a distinctive style in which he combined a lyrical chromaticism with simplified designs and two-dimensional shapes, achieving a subtle balance between realism and abstraction with which he sought to capture the essence, or universal truth, of his subjects. He viewed his art as a means of expressing personal emotion; as he put it, “To feel is to know and to know is to feel; all my paintings represent that through color, line, and subject.” As the introduction to the catalogue from his first solo show, held in 1934, aptly stated: his “theory embraces a precise expressionism” and commented that in his “nuanced studies you will encounter the evasive, evocative personality of the true searcher after the emotional ‘mot juste.’”
Born in Romania in 1899, Benjamin moved with his family to Canada two years later, settling in Montreal. He began studying art when he was ten, taking classes at the Council of Arts and Manufacturers of the Province of Quebec. Among his teachers was the prominent French-born, Italian-trained painter Edmond Dyonnet. In 1913 he was admitted to the Royal Canadian Academy, where he was taught and encouraged by the Scottish-born painter William Brymner, who was also president of the academy. Leaving school when was fourteen, Benjamin became engaged as an apprentice at an advertising firm, where he learned the engraving techniques. He parlayed his skills into a job in 1918 for the Montreal Star, where he was hired as the art director. He also taught evening drawing classes to children at the Peretz School in Montreal.
Gershon Benjamin - A Jersey City Pier, ca. late 1950 or 1960
In 1923 Benjamin moved to New York, where he began a job working during the night shift in the New York Sun’s art department and enrolled at the Art Students League. Among his teachers at the league were Joseph Pennell, from whom he learned engraving, and John Sloan, with whom he studied figural drawing. It was also in 1923 that he married the actress Hilda Zelda Cohen (“Zelda”), whom he had met earlier in Montreal. At the Sun, it was Benjamin’s decision to work nights, as this schedule enabled him to devote his days to his art. Typically he left work at dawn or just before, and the empty city—as seen when he went to work, or in the dark or dim light of early morning when he headed home—became a dominant subject in his art from the 1920s until the end of his life. Soon after he arrived in New York, Benjamin began to associate with a circle of progressive-minded artists that included Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Arshile Gorky as well as John Sloan and Raphael and Moses Soyer. The artists often painted together and critiqued each other’s work. Benjamin was especially close to Avery, and the two artists would retain a close and supportive friendship and artistic connection throughout their lives. From 1927 through 1929, Gershon and Zelda and Milton and his wife Sally resided at the Lincoln Arcade, a building converted from offices to artists’ home-studios that was located at Broadway and 66th Street (now the site of Lincoln Center). Sharing similar artistic ideals, as is especially apparent in their use of gentle color harmonies, Benjamin and Avery often drew from the model together. When models were unavailable, they portrayed each other, resulting in insightful portraits in which they captured subtleties of each others’ personalities. Whereas Avery conveyed Benjamin’s combination of whimsical humor and sincerity, Benjamin captured Avery’s pensive reserved nature. In 1945 Benjamin purchased a portrait of himself by Avery as a way of showing his support to his friend, who was still seeking recognition by the art world.
Even after the Benjamins moved from the Lincoln Arcade at the end of 1929, he maintained his association with Avery and the artists who congregated around him. In fact, the group grew closer after 1930, when the artists who continued to explore stylistic modes of European modernism, were increasingly outside the mainstream, characterized by the Regionalist works created by artists who concurred with the notion that American artists should focus on American subject matter and find a distinctive American identity. In the early 1930s, Benjamin spent time during the summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he joined Avery, Gottlieb, and other artists in drawing inspiration from Cape Ann’s lively harbors and shores.
In 1933 Benjamin’s work was exhibited at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel along with that of Gottlieb in an exhibition organized by the impresario and art critic Robert Godsoe. In the two years that followed, Benjamin along with Avery, Rothko, Gottlieb, and a number of other artists were promoted by Godsoe in exhibitions he organized at the Uptown and Secession Galleries, which received a significant amount of attention from the New York press. The art on view was characterized as “expressionist,” for its individualistic and subjective aspects, which contrasted with the didactic and patriotic art of American Scene and Regionalist art popular at the time. In July 1933, Godsoe held the first solo exhibition of Benjamin’s art, presenting a group of his subtly toned gouaches of figural and city motifs, which were well-received by the critics.
In the late 1930s, Benjamin continued to receive recognition and attention. He exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists and the Salons of America, and in March 1937, a one-man show of his paintings and gouaches was held at Contemporary Arts, New York, located on 58th Street. The show was praised in the press. Howard Devree noted in the New York Times that Benjamin had made an “auspicious debut” in “landscape and figure works” in which he displayed “an excellent grasp of pictorial terms.” A commentator for Art News stated that Benjamin was an artist who had “passed his novitiate” and observed that his “broad, sketchy treatment of brush and wash, somber tones of a low key, and vague nuances” gave his paintings “a romantic nostalgia that is . . . akin to the work of the Neo-Romanticist, (Christian) Bérard.” From 1945 to 1947, Benjamin exhibited his work at Bertha Schaefer Gallery, New York, where he was work was shown alongside that of Avery, Marsden Hartley, Louise Bourgeois, and Alfred Maurer.
In the late 1940s Benjamin shifted the center of his attention to his home in Free Acres, New Jersey, at the base of the Watchung Mountains, where he had begun to summer in 1936. After the Sun closed in 1950, Benjamin spent a few jobless years, but he returned to work three years later, taking a similar job for the New York Telegraph. He and Zelda resided permanently in Free Acres after his retirement in 1963. In the years that followed, the couple traveled to Europe and the West Coast, and Benjamin continued to paint until his death in 1985.
Despite his long and prolific career, Benjamin remained little known to contemporary art audiences until the early 1980s, when a series of exhibitions--at Drew University (1983) the New Jersey Institute of Technology (1984)--brought his work before the public eye. In 2003, the exhibition Gershon and the City opened at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, and in the spring of 2008 Spanierman Gallery held Over Seven Decades: The Art of Gershon Benjamin (1899-1985), accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, covering Benjamin’s life and work.
Benjamin is represented in many private collections, as well as in public collections including Berkeley Heights Public Library, New Jersey; Drew University, Madison, New Jersey; Griffiths Art Center, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita, Kansas.
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