Benjamin F. Berlin
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Benjamin F. Berlin

mid-to-late 1920s

Berlin's turn to modernism was supposedly initiated by his reading of Jerome Eddy's notable book Cubists and Post-Impressionism (1914), and his earliest abstractions are indebted to cubism. Although Berlin probably never visited France, by the 1920s cubism was well known in Los Angeles and he would have been aware of it.

In this painting the figures are fused with the surrounding environment in a configuration of overlapping and intersecting faceted planes and ray lines, standard cubist devices. During the 1920s, when this canvas may have been painted, Stanton Macdonaldwright was the dominant force in Los Angeles's modernist circles. His art, although exhibiting more arabesque lines, may have influenced Berlin's treatment of the figure, especially in his use of delicate, translucent planes.

The cubist art of Lorser Feitelson, who became a major progressive force in Los Angeles after his move to the West Coast in 1927, also may have served as a model for Berlin. A painting that may have directly inspired Figures is Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp's often reproduced painting was a notorious modernist work, and it is likely that Berlin became acquainted with it through the collector Walter Arensberg, who had settled in Hollywood in the 1920s and always opened his home to artists.

Arensberg did not acquire the painting until 1930, but before that time he proudly displayed a color reproduction of it. As in Duchamp's painting, Berlin's cubist analysis of movement results in an allover composition of intersecting planes and diagonal lines colored in a somber dominant hue. The dark lines are in blue with brighter, warm colors brushed in to create a translucent effect. Figures may have been one of the paintings, as was Rhythmic Forms (unlocated), in Berlin's 1924 exhibition at the Potboiler, for in an article commenting on the show, Berlin was praised for being one of the first to attempt the depiction of the fourth dimension..

Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

Little is known of this early Los Angeles modernist, although during the 1920s and 1930s Benjamin F. Berlin was considered by his peers to be among the most talented of local abstract artists. He may have attended college before studying illustration in Los Angeles, first at the Cannon Art School from 1911 to 1912 and for about six months at a school run by John H. Rich (1876-1954) and William V. Cahill (died 1924). He was one of several artists who maintained studios at the Lyceum Theater Building. He may also have worked for the motion-picture industry.

Although Berlin began his career as a portraitist and continued to paint representational works into the 1920s, he participated in the first modernist show in Los Angeles held in 1923 at the MacDowell Women's Club and was a member of the governing committee that organized the Group of Independent Artists. He had one of the largest bodies of work in the 1923 exhibition, nineteen pieces, including Owngz (unlocated), an arrangement of semitransparent, geometrical, overlapping shapes. He continued to exhibit cubistinspired paintings during the mid-1920s and perhaps as late as the early 1930s. He frequented Margery Winter's salon, where he associated with art historian and critic Sadakichi Hartmann and EJNAR HANSEN.

Around 1930 Berlin painted watercolors of the Grand Canyon, possibly for the tourist trade. He also participated in the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, producing easel paintings in the studio of Area Director LORSER FEITELSON, who became his close friend. During the mid-1930s his art became more surreal, perhaps under Feitelson's influence.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art: