“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
In May 2011, Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities invited me to compile and produce oral histories of alumni artists, professors, and professors emeritus of CGU Art. This post-doctoral project evolved from my dissertation, which explored the mechanisms of artist emergence in contemporary culture. Over 30 hours of digitally recorded interviews with Karl Benjamin, Roland Reiss, Michael Brewster, Connie Zehr, Mowry Baden, Ted Kerzie, and John Frame were conducted between 2011-2012 from the artists’ home studios in California, New York, and Canada. The audio and textual documentations were produced from two and three sessions, and transcribed into over 900 pages of narratives for the series. The recordings reveal in-depth conversations with the artists about their lives and careers from their early years at Claremont Graduate School (Claremont Graduate University) to their emergence onto the L.A. and international art scenes, and contributions to contemporary art.
Prior to this role, I only knew the names and works of these artists from readings and casual connections at Claremont with the exception of Ted Kerzie, my art professor at California State University, Bakersfield, whom I exhibited at my gallery during its 1994-2009 run. Kerzie and George Ketterl, also an art professor at CSUB, received MFAs from Claremont Graduate School and were subsequently hired at CSUB. They infused the CGU art model of creative thought, engaging issues of contemporary art and promoting open exchange into the conceptually-based program. Students explored new methodologies and genres, and learned of professional practice through the Visiting Artists Program and field trips to LA galleries and artist studios.
A Life’s Legacy
Kerzie was a drawing instructor at Scripps before accepting a position at CSUB. He developed “Painting and Beyond,” the Summer Arts Program through the California State University system, which brought together a repertoire of practicing artists, critics, and students through two-week long workshops in the visual arts. The intense workshops, usually running 12-14 hours each day provided a unique environment for working one-on-one with some of the best artists and master teachers around including: Roland Reiss, Ed Moses, James Turrell, Julian Schnabel, Karen Carson, David Salle, Joan Hugo, Judy Pfaff, Elizabeth Murray, Bob Holman, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Gilah Yelin Hirsch, Peter Frank, and others. This program aligned with the Visiting Artists Program at CSUB, which continues today. In the 40 years Kerzie taught as an art professor, guests included: Joe Goode, Roland Meyer, John McCracken, Maria Nordman, Peter Plagens, and Ed Ruscha.
Roland Reiss subsequently developed “Painting’s Edge,” an advanced painting program at Idyllwild Arts, which includes professional-level workshops, individual critiques, group discussions and public lectures. “Painting’s Edge,” CSU “Painting and Beyond,” and the CSUB Visiting Artists Program emerged from the Visiting Artist Lecture Series at Claremont Graduate University.
In the early days, the administrative finesse of Roland Reiss laid the groundwork for CGU Art’s organizational structure and its new Art building on Tenth Street. He was joined by Michael Brewster and Connie Zehr who worked with Reiss to develop curricula and programs as the department grew. Today, CGU Art perpetuates its role in the contemporary discourse with internationally acclaimed core faculty David Amico, Michael Brewster, Rachel Lachowicz, and David Pagel; and adjunct faculty Ann Bray, Katie Grinnan, Carmine Iannaccone, John Millei, and Michael Reafsnyder.
Karl Benjamin received a Master of Arts at Claremont Graduate School and taught in the Art program at Pomona College (as did Reiss and Brewster, who also taught concurrently at CGS). Benjamin made his mark in geometric abstraction in 1959 with his inclusion in Four Abstract Classicists: Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a ground-breaking exhibition curated by Jules Langsner (1911-1967). Benjamin’s transition from teaching elementary school to his rise in the contemporary art world is nothing short of exemplary. He disregarded Clement Greenberg’s suggestion to move to New York and chose to remain in Claremont with his young family, as his career continued to flourish.
Through my interviews, I discovered a confluence of histories and trajectories in the careers of Benjamin, Reiss, Brewster, Zehr, Baden, Kerzie, and Frame, which secured the CGU Art legacy for generations to come. As I came to know the breadth and depth of their personal and professional paths, I realized how many experiences, colleagues, and friends we shared as well.
At Claremont, Karl Benjamin was followed by Roland Reiss and Michael Brewster who were professors to Ted Kerzie and John Frame. Mowry Baden, as chair of the Art Program at Pomona College was mentor to Brewster, whom he collaborated with in later years. Connie Zehr’s contributions as Chair further enhanced the Art department. John Frame was one of two living artists to have a solo show at the Huntington Art Gallery. And Michael Brewster was named the first recipient of the Roland Reiss Endowed Chair in Art. Together, they inspired an impressive roster of students who forged successful careers.
Each artist in the oral history series has shown internationally and is included in prominent museum, corporate, and private collections. Many were mentors who became colleagues and peers to the students they inspired. They have endured ups and downs in their careers and embraced lifelong friendships and memories, which remain.
In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art
In September 2012, I was given the opportunity to present my research and curate an exhibition of the artist’s work in both CGU Art East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. My vision came together with the support of many including Dr. Janet Brodie, then Dean of CGU School of Arts and Humanities and staff; David Pagel, CGU Art Chair; Chris Christion, Gallery Manager; CGU Art staff; CGU Office of Advancement; CGU Office of Alumni and Donor Relations; Rod Leveque, Assistant Director, Media & Online Relations; and many others. Louis Stern Fine Arts provided archival photos of Karl Benjamin.
Chris Christion facilitated the interactive audio/video presentations from my designs and contributed to the artwork installation and lighting. Dr. January Parkos Arnall provided photographic portraits of the artists and assisted in the project. John Frame painted pedestals donated by the American Museum of Ceramic Art, as many helped bring the project to fruition. Jennifer van der Hoorn, owner of T-Phillips in Glendora (and Kerzie’s daughter) contributed the catering for the exhibition opening.
The documentation and formal exhibitions featured selected audio clips and transcripts of the artist interviews, multimedia displays and streaming video about the artists, as well as their biographies, portraits, and original works, many which had not been exhibited.
Each of the featured artists has broken ground with their methodologies and in their respective genres. Benjamin as a master of color and shape, Reiss with plastics, and Brewster with spatial effects of sound. Zehr innovated with sand, Kerzie as a pioneer of process, Baden engaged the viewer in perceptual awareness, and Frame with sculpture and animation.
The artists collectively received 20 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts including 56 grants and fellowships for their work. They are included in at least 56 major museum collections, 66 private collections, and over 300 collections internationally. They have garnered more than 208 years in teaching experience and have contributed over 114 years of teaching service to the Claremont Colleges. With over 43 solo museum exhibitions to their credit, the artists are included in over 82 book and catalogue publications. They hold seven graduate-level degrees including one honorary doctorate.
Frame’s work is included in the Smithsonian Collection and Kerzie has career documentation in the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library. Benjamin and Reiss have oral histories in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. Reiss, Zehr, and Brewster have been included in the Whitney Biennial.
CGU President Deborah Freund and Board of Trustees held a dinner in the galleries recognizing the project and honoring the artists. The series will be included in Claremont Colleges Digital Library, CGU Oral History Library, and Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. The project was a chance to document and celebrate the contributions of seven extraordinary artists with special tribute to Karl Benjamin, our mentor and friend.
Karl Benjamin (b.1925 – d.2012)
Painter, Sculptor, Educator
A dazzling practitioner of what critic Jules Langsner termed “hard edge painting,” and one of the four artists featured in the landmark 1959 Abstract Classicists exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, Benjamin fills each canvas with meticulously orchestrated color. A sharp-angled wedge of forest green lined by the tenderest block of spring green forms something like the feeling of a hill or does it? Benjamin’s intuitive sensitivity to the peculiar union of form and color produces works that defy reason and return the viewer to the purely sensual delight of seeing. Karl Benjamin’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and is included in a number of prestigious private and public collections. Louis Stern Fine Arts is the exclusive representative of his work.
Karl Benjamin was born in Chicago, IL in 1925. He received his BA from University of Redlands, Redlands, CA and his MA at Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, CA. He was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Visual Arts in both 1983 and 1989. His work has been featured in numerous museum exhibitions and is included in the public collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, Israel; Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Seattle Art Museum, WA; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, among others. For many years, Benjamin taught painting at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate School, and retired Professor Emeritus. He passed away at home in Claremont on July 26, 2012. (Courtesy of Louis Stern Fine Arts)
Roland Reiss (b. 1929 – )
Painter, Sculptor, Educator
In 2010, Claremont Graduate University celebrated the life and work of CGU Art Professor Emeritus Roland Reiss during a weekend of events in September. “Familiar Grounds: Celebrating Roland Reiss and Art at CGU,” (Sept. 10-12), at the CGU campus and art galleries in Claremont and Pomona. Events included panel discussions, receptions, and three Reiss exhibitions, which recognized Reiss’s art and his contributions to making the CGU Art program one of the finest in the country. Reiss was a part of the CGU Art department for 30 years, 29 years as Chair of the department. He revolutionized the teaching of art with the concept of a community centered program and his design of open, individual workspaces for CGU students. This arrangement remains in use today.
The College Art Association (CAA) presented Roland Reiss with the 2009 Distinguished Teaching of Art Award noting:
“Reiss is a single individual who has managed to have an impact on the entire field of art pedagogy and practice. His most current enterprise as director and founder of the Idyllwild Arts, Painting’s Edge, submerges students into a studio experience guided by some of the world’s most influential practitioners and critics. An educator for over fifty-five years, Reiss’s students can be found throughout the world, carrying on his legacy as critically and expressively engaged artists, educators, and creative thinkers.”
Roland Reiss, Professor Emeritus of the Art program at Claremont Graduate University in California, stands out through his legendary energy, passion, and intellectual commitment—and above all for his transformative connection with the individual student. An exceptional teacher can connect with the current generation of students and lead them into the future, and it is a rare educator who can do this generation after generation, deeply penetrating the pulse of the times.
Michael Brewster (b. 1946 – d. 2016 )
Sound Sculptor, Educator
Michael Brewster is a visual artist who works with sound’s spatial effects to promote sculptural sensations of space. He has been making sound art since 1970. His two main series, the Sonic Drawings and the Acoustic Sculptures, both use sound in space to generate expanded experiences of drawing and sculpture ideas. Brewster received an MFA (Sculpture) at Claremont Graduate University; a BA (Sculpture) at Pomona College; and graduated from high school in São Paulo, Brazil. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Orange County Museum of Art; Santa Monica Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art; Ace Contemporary Exhibitions; and Artist’s Space in New York City, as well as at sites in Australia, Canada, Holland, Austria, and Italy.
In 1988 Professor Brewster was named a Fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation. He is also the recipient of four Artist’s Fellowship Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (’76, ’78, ’84, ’90), and a City of Los Angeles Artist’s Grant (COLA 1996). His works are in the permanent collections of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; the Orange County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Three of his sound installations are on permanent public display in the Panza Villa in Varese, Italy. Brewster’s work was featured in “It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973,” at Pomona College Museum of Art. The exhibition presented works by faculty and students who collaborated with curators of the day, Hal Glicksman and Helene Winer. For the past 40 years, Michael Brewster has been pushing the perceptual boundaries of the sculptural experience. Throughout his career, he has advocated the notion that sculpture is an inner, visceral awareness that evokes sensations in mind and body.
Connie Zehr (b. 1938 – )
Sculptor, Educator, Installation, Digital Media
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Connie Zehr received a BFA in sculpture at Ohio State University in 1960. She has created on-site ephemeral installations in museums and galleries nationally and internationally including: The Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City, NY); The Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL); Pasadena Art Museum (Pasadena, CA); Taipei Fine Art Museum (Taipei, Taiwan); Salvatori Ala Galeria (Milan, Italy); Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, CT); Newspace Gallery (Los Angeles, CA); and numerous university galleries.
In 1987, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park (Los Angeles, CA) mounted an 18 year retrospective exhibition where she recreated scaled down versions of six major sand installations in the 10,000 sq. ft. space. Ten years later, in the same space, she participated in an exhibition, “Sensuality in the Abstract,” where she created three new installations consecutively over a three month period and exhibited the first “iris” prints relating to those installations. She is included in “Sunshine Muse,” by Peter Plagens; “Original,” by Eleanor Munro; and “L.A. Rising,” by Lynn Kienholz. Connie is an Emeritus Professor of Art at Claremont Graduate University where she taught in the Art department from 1982-2009 and was Chair from 2001-2008. She now resides in New York.
Mowry Baden (b. 1936 – )
Born in Los Angeles in 1936 and educated at Pomona College and Stanford University, Mowry Baden has lived and worked in Canada since 1971. He has practiced sculpture for over 40 years and has taught sculpture at Raymond College, Pomona College, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria, from which he retired in 1997. He has influenced a generation of sculptors in Canada and the U.S. with his engaging, participatory installations and has challenged contemporary sculpture through a staggering number of projects and artworks that borrow from psychology and architecture. Articulating an internal awareness of movement and posture has always been the most important element in his work. For more than 40 years, he has developed various methods of decentering vision and interfering with habitual human gestures. He has built harnesses, furniture, rooms, pathways and catwalks, all with the goal of impinging upon the viewer’s movements and awakening a physical self-awareness that was previously unconscious.
Baden tries to provoke a perceptual crisis that assaults the viewer’s confidence in the information that comes through the senses. His practice has always involved materials, just like any artist who makes objects. Ideally, however, he is less interested in the object than in the experience. He wants the viewer to enter the object (or the space) and have an experience that is visceral, internal, and sensorially cross-circuited. He is the recipient of numerous grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts and has held solo and group exhibitions across North America including Los Angeles, Mexico City, Montreal, Vancouver and New York (including the Museum of Modern Art). His work is represented in prestigious collections in Canada and the USA. He has been commissioned to create public art works in Victoria and Vancouver, Canada; Seattle, WA; San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Irvine, CA; Pittsburgh PA; Washington DC; and Lewiston, NY. Baden received a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2006.
Ted Kerzie (b. 1943 – d. 2018)
Painter, Sculptor, Digital Artist, Educator
Ted Kerzie grew up in Tacoma, Washington, the eldest of two boys. His father was a C.P.A. and his mother was also an accountant who kept their business running long after her husband’s death. Kerzie’s father wanted him to try a military career so he graduated Washington State University with a degree in Fine Arts and a commission in the United States Air Force. He was sent to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era as a photographer and later, as a motion picture officer. Kerzie left the Air Force in 1970 and entered Claremont Graduate University pursuing an MFA in painting, and graduating in 1972. He was so impressed by his professors that he decided on a career in teaching at the university level and, as a professional artist. In the past 50 years, he has accomplished both. Kerzie ttaught drawing at Scripps and Claremont Graduate University before taking a job at California State University, Bakersfield as an art professor.
After 40 years, now retired from teaching, he is a full-time artist. Kerzie’s big break came with a one-person show at Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles in 1981, which led to other opportunities and over 250 group and one-person shows throughout the United States and internationally. In 2001, he was commissioned by local art patron Millie Ablin to produce his first sculpture entitled “Eclipse.” The massive steel structure was installed at CSUB School of Business and Public Administration courtyard and developed from his paintings, which created new methodologies in his work. Millie, and her husband, Dr. George Ablin, owned one of the only Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area, which was built in 1953. Millie was a major contributor to the Arts and her commission of Kerzie’s work was significant for the area, the University, and for the artist. Kerzie also has a love of flying and has logged over 2,500 hours as a pilot. He has flown with James Turrell. He lives and works in a studio in Bakersfield, California at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range on a small lake about 1-1/2 hours North of Los Angeles. He has three grown children, two of whom live in Los Angeles and the other lives in Tacoma, Washington. Ted Kerzie is considered to be one of the pioneers of Process Art in Southern California.
John Frame (b. 1950 – )
Sculptor, Photographer, Composer, Filmmaker
John Frame has been making sculpture in Southern California since the early 1980s; his work has been exhibited extensively in the United States as well as in Europe, Japan, and China. He is a recipient of two Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the New Talent Award from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Individual Artist Fellowship; and received an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle in 2009. John’s work can be found in more than 300 public and private collections, including the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the Renwick Gallery of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Southern California.
In 1992, a major survey of the artist’s work was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; In 2005, the Long Beach Museum of Art organized a mid-career retrospective exhibition, “Enigma Variations: The Sculpture of John Frame, 1980 to 2005.” In 2011, “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale,” became the first major solo exhibition of the work of a living sculptor to be mounted by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and in 2012, “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale” exhibited at the Portland Art Museum. Frame has been artist in residence, visiting artist, or guest lecturer at more than 70 museums, universities, and art-related institutions around the United States. He lives and works in Wrightwood, California.
“These are legendary artists and we’re pulling the curtain back to reveal the experiences that shaped their remarkable careers.”Jill Thayer, Ph.D. Curatorial Archivist
________________________________________Press release for the exhibition: “Art galleries to feature oral histories of renowned CGU artists,” Claremont Graduate University News & Events, Office of Communications, (Tuesday, August 14, 2012). <http://www.cgu.edu/pages/4546.asp?item=6469>.