Many brilliant artists throughout history, although recognized in their time, have remained long and undeservedly forgotten, for one reason or another. A select few, however, have been fortunate enough to be rediscovered at a fortuitous future moment. Such is the case with Gershon Benjamin (1899-1985), an American modernist painter who was the subject of a dazzling retrospective earlier this year at New York’s Spanierman Gallery, who represents the artist’s estate. The first-large scale presentation of Benjamin’s art, the exhibition featured more than sixty landscapes, still lifes, figurative works and portraits that Benjamin produced over the course of a seventy-year career.
For the past two years, Lowy has played a significant role in bringing these works to a new audience by restoring them to their original beauty and creating frames that complemented their understated elegance. “It was important that the paintings be in the best possible condition for this landmark exhibition,” says Ira Spanierman. “I have known Larry Shar and worked with Lowy for many years. I knew that they would understand the character of these sensitive paintings and the Zeitgeist of the early modernist aesthetic. The paintings needed a good cleaning and frames that highlighted the quiet spiritual quality of Benjamin’s art. I have always had great confidence and faith in Lowy’s taste and expertise and knew they would do an exceptional job.” Whether working in oil, gouache, pastel or watercolor, Benjamin is noted for his restrained yet emotionally powerful semi-abstract style, which found expression in a variety of subjects, ranging from intimate portraits of family and friends to poetic still lifes, landscapes and seascapes, and bold, expressive scenes of New York City. He was at the center of a group of artists, including friends Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, who, in the 1930s, countered the prevailing American Scene and Regionalist painting and Social Realism trends to pioneer what they called an “expressionist art” that integrated European modernism in an American context. Along with his progressive colleagues, Benjamin held the belief that art should convey feeling and abstract ideas, rather than doctrine and content, while both borrowing and breaking away from art traditions. Drawing inspiration from an array of sources, including his own academic background, Japanese prints, folk art, primitive painting and the European modernist artists he admired, such as Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Vuillard and Pissarro, Benjamin captured the life around him in thoughtful, reductive images with a masterful interplay of form and color that revealed his innermost feelings, while expressing the true essence of his subjects. In his quest to evoke “the quiet beauty of the everyday,” in Ira Spanierman’s words, Benjamin left behind a sublime body of work distinguished by its powerful simplicity and intense emotion. Of Benjamin’s art, the New York Sun critic Melville Upton wrote in 1937: “His work as a rule has a poetical, pensive bent, though never descending to prettiness, and finds its expression in a low-toned palette….His form is ‘felt’ rather than vigorously insisted upon, which gives certain of his canvases … a certain aloofness and air of reserve, as though he were enamored of the virtues of understatement.” Born in Romania, the young Benjamin immigrated to Montreal, Canada with his family, where he attended art schools, while also studying photo engraving, which enabled him to establish a commercial career with newspapers throughout his life. He moved to New York City in 1923, married the actress Hilda Zelda Cohen and took a job in the art department of the New York Sun, where he worked for twenty-five years on the late-night shift so that he could paint by day. By the end of the 1920s, he had become part of a dynamic group of young artists who gathered around Milton Avery. Along with his wife, Sally, Avery advocated a freedom of self-expression and experimentation that appealed to Benjamin, whose paintings reveal Avery’s imprint. Benjamin and Avery remained close friends throughout their lives, traveled together and often depicted each other in portraits. Benjamin painted in the evenings with Avery and other artist friends, including Rothko, Gottlieb, John Sloan, Arshile Gorky and Raphael and Moses Soyer, who critiqued each other’s work and often shared the cost of hiring models. During the Great Depression, Benjamin’s job at the Sun provided him with economic stability, which many of his fellow artists lacked. “Benjamin was passionately devoted to his art, but he never sought to make a living from it or to promote himself like some of the other artists in his circle, although he did participate in a number of exhibitions,” says Spanierman. “For this reason, his art has remained largely unknown to the general public.” By the mid-1930s, when he showed with the Uptown and Secession galleries in New York, Benjamin had developed a reputation as an expressive painter of mood. In the ensuing years, he diverged from the increasing emphasis on abstraction favored by some of his fellow artists, such as Rothko and Gottlieb, choosing instead to keep his art rooted in his direct experiences of nature. Benjamin increasingly began to distance himself from the New York art world, becoming more involved with a community of artists, writers and musicians who congregated in Free Acres, New Jersey, in the foothills of the Watchung Mountains, where he and Zelda settled permanently after his retirement in 1963. Although he continued to exhibit his art in New York and New Jersey until the end of his life, Benjamin stayed true to his own artistic path all along, even as he witnessed the rise to fame of the New York School in the 1950s. “To feel is to know and to know is to feel … all my paintings represent that through color, line, and subject,” he said.
When Spanierman called upon Lowy to dress up Benjamin’s paintings for the retrospective exhibition, they first needed to be thoroughly cleaned. “There was a lot of dirt and soot embedded on the surface of the paintings, probably due in part to the fact that Benjamin didn’t use varnish, which usually protects paintings from accumulating surface debris,” says Bill Santel, Lowy’s chief conservator. “Because Benjamin applied his paint in thin, soluble layers, which gives his work an almost transparent look, the paintings were sensitive to some cleaning methods. We used a very mild detergent and rinsing agent, so that we could clean without running the risk of removing any paint. It was a tricky task; we had to be careful to maintain the integrity of the paintings.” Many of the paintings also displayed minor surface distortions, such as faint cupping, dents, bulges and stretcher bar creases.
Lowy’s conservators removed these imperfections with both humidity treatments and infusions—the application of a thermoplastic adhesive to a canvas verso in order to strengthen both the canvas and the original paint layers. Additionally, some of the paintings had areas of drying crackle typical of paintings of this period and caused by the contraction of paint layers over time, which produces fine cracks on a painting’s surface, revealing the white ground layer beneath. Lowy’s conservators improved the appearance of these areas with inpainting. A final challenge in the conservation process was the presence of mold stains on both the fronts and backs of some paintings, which were treated variously with detergents and solvents. “We had to find a reasonable combination of treatments to deal with these different conservation challenges,” says Santel. “And we had to adjust our approach for each individual painting to meet its particular needs. In the end, I was pleased that we were able to return the paintings as closely as possible to what we believed was their original appearance.” After the paintings were carefully conserved, they were ready to be framed. Spanierman selected a variety of frame styles based on examples in Lowy’s extensive inventory of original and reproduction American modernist frames. “Benjamin’s paintings were best suited to the modernist styles typical of frames made from the 1930s to 1950s,”says Brad Shar, vice president and general manager of Lowy. “These simple frames with a homespun character using minimal carving and gilding were often made or designed by artists themselves, including Charles Prendergast, John Marin and Milton Avery, and complemented the expressive new look of these modern paintings. We created stylized, tailored versions of these frames specifically for Benjamin’s paintings that evoked the frame aesthetic of that era.” Like mid 20th-century artist’s frames, the reproductions have a naïve, hand-crafted look and are distinguished by a painterly distressed gold or silver leaf finish. “But we adjusted the finishes on Benjamin’s frames to give them a slightly more high-style, high quality look,” says Brad. Spanierman was thrilled with the results. “From conservation to framing, Lowy gave Benjamin’s paintings exactly the kind of sympathetic and skillful treatment they deserved. We could not have been more pleased with the interest they generated at the exhibition.”