A Road Well Traveled
What: "Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled"
Where: Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St., La Conner
WHEN: 12pm-4pm Thurs.-Sun., through May 9
Cost: Entry is free
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Max Benjamin studied art at the University of Washington under Walter Isaacs and Ambrose Patterson, where he describes being “sucked into” painting.
After graduating, he worked as a commercial illustrator for four years, then in 1959 made the life-changing decision to “leave Mother’s breast and go out into the big world” as a full-time artist. He and his late wife found a hideaway on Guemes Island. He built a studio where he could paint on the big scale that a man of his size required. He’s still there at age 92, painting every day.
Initially, Benjamin painted landscapes and a few still-lifes. You’ll find examples dated 1960-63 near the elevator on the second floor of the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, where “A Road Less Traveled” is currently on display. These particular works are from the era when abstract expressionism was in vogue, especially “Color Field Painting,” which resonated for Benjamin. But if you ask him what style he prefers, he simply says, “I just paint.”
Through the years, the artist stuck to his very focused, personal vision described in an interview as “wrestling with discursive, self-dialogues of line, shape, surface and color.” He abandoned references to landscape or objects because a painting should be an independent art form, referring only to itself and structurally consistent, like a string quartet.
John Franklin Koenig gave Benjamin’s career an early boost. He helped him and other Northwest artists market their work in Canada and Europe. Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery was a local outlet. Benjamin also found recognition in New York, Portland, Vancouver, Stockholm, and Los Angeles, eventually followed by retrospectives at the Bellevue and Whatcom art museums in the 1980s. His paintings hang in many Northwest offices and foyers—notably Peoples’ Bank in Mount Vernon and their corporate headquarters in Bellingham.
In “A Road Well Traveled,” curator Susan Parke has expertly included 48 paintings by Benjamin and 21 pastel drawings. They are complemented by fused glass panels designed and created by Benjamin and Steve Klein. What are the dimensions of these paintings? Most are not indicated, so “very big” will have to suffice.
I find it impossible from this generous exhibit of Benjamin’s work to deduce a line of development or discover any grouping of themes. By 1968, he had found his confident, personal style—see the work of that date loaned to MoNA by Chris and Allan Elliott. It’s a brilliant, generous canvas dominated by bright yellow, a color which continues to be a major element in his work.
It reappears, along with brilliant red, an intense, somewhat acid green and deep, penetrating blue, onward through the splendid “Sonata Series” (2002-2010) to the present day. Black, which for Benjamin symbolizes eroticism, appears frequently. White, less so. “Untitled, 2020” is an anomaly for its semi-transparent band of white across the center.
Art critic Matthew Kangas once said that Max Benjamin’s works carry an “absolute assured sense of purpose… a godlike authority.” How true that statement is.
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