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Gershon Benjamin

1899

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Biography

Although Gershon Benjamin sustained a painting career for over seven decades and kept company with famous artists such as Milton Avery, his works remain largely unknown because he never sought fame or recognition for his work. Benjamin, a painter of portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and the urban scene, was fully dedicated to a personal and honest artistic expression. He was not commercially motivated, and instead chose to support his art with a job in the art department of the New York Sun. Benjamin painted in a style that hovers between realism and abstraction; his work can be characterized by his simplified designs and two-dimensional shapes of the things and places he experienced every day. Benjamin transforms his world into reductive and careful images that embody his emotive responses to his subjects.

Gershon Benjamin was born in Romania in 1899 and two years later moved with his family to Canada, settling in Montreal. Benjamin’s education in art started when he was 10 years old, taking classes at the Council of Arts and Manufacturers of the Province of Quebec. Benjamin went on to study at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Manufacturers and at the Montreal Art Association. He eventually became an apprentice at an advertising firm where he learned engraving techniques—skills he would go on to use in 1918 as the art director for the Montreal Star.

Benjamin relocated to New York in 1923 where he began his job in the New York Sun’s art department, and continued his art education at Cooper Union, the Art Students League and the Art Alliance. Benjamin chose to work nights so that he could be free to paint during the day. It was during this commute, leaving for work at midnight and returning at dawn, that Benjamin observed the sleeping city in the dark or dim light, a subject that dominated his art from the 1920s until the end of his life. That same year, Benjamin married the actress Hilda Zelda Cohen (“Zelda”), whom he had met previously in Montreal. In New York, Benjamin associated himself with a circle of progressive artists including Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Arshile Gorky, as well as John Sloan and Raphael and Moses Soyer.  Benjamin was particularly close to Milton Avery, and the two artists and their wives lived at the Lincoln Arcade, a building converted from offices to artists’ home-studios. Benjamin and Avery shared similar artistic ideals, especially apparent in their similar use of gentle color harmonies, and they often drew from the same models together, or portrayed each other. In 1945 Benjamin purchased a portrait of himself by Avery to show support for his friend who, unlike himself, was seeking recognition by the art world.

In 1933 Benjamin’s work was part of a group exhibition at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, along with the art of Gottlieb, organized by the impresario and art critic Robert Godsoe. Godsoe continued to promote Benjamin’s art, along with that of Avery, Rothko, and Gottlieb, at exhibitions he organized at the Uptown and Secession Galleries. The art on view gained significant attention from the press and was described as “expressionist,” for its individualistic and subjective aspects which contrasted with the Regionalist art popular at the time. In July 1933, Godsoe hosted Benjamin’s first solo exhibition, presenting a group of his gouaches of figural and city motifs, which were well-received by the critics.

In the late 1930s, Benjamin continued to exhibit his work and receive appreciation. He exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists and the Salons of America, and in March 1937, he had a solo exhibition of his paintings and gouaches at Contemporary Arts, New York, located on 58th Street. Benjamin’s work continued to be praised by the press.

In the late 1940s, Benjamin shifted his attention from New York to his summer home in Free Acres, New Jersey. He and Zelda permanently relocated there after his retirement in 1963, and the two traveled to Europe and the West Coast in the years that followed. Benjamin continued to paint until his death in 1985.

Despite his long and productive painting career, Benjamin remained little known to contemporary art audiences until the early 1980s, when a series of exhibitions at Drew University (1983) and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (1984), garnered attention from the public. Benjamin went on to exhibit at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, and at Spanierman Gallery in New York.

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.

Exhibitions