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The William Benson Retrospective- A Career of Expressing Beauty

Updated: May 23

Impressions of the exhibit at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts-May 4- 25, 2024- Brian Keeler

Note- This review was published in full in the May 22 issue of the Ithaca Times.

I am a long-time fan of Bill Benson's artwork and this 40 year retrospective is a beautiful culmination of a career well spent and life well-lived. So it was an incredible treat to view this collection and especially rewarding to see the opening so well attended. The show is wonderfully presented in a beautiful space at the Saltonstall Foundation located just a few miles east of Ithaca.

My first encounter with seeing Bill's work goes way back, perhaps to circa 1981 or thereabouts. A bar that I occasionally went to where other "townies" frequented, Pete's Bar on Cayuga Street, had an issue of the Grapevine (the former weekly paper) with an illustration of Bill's featured, framed on the bar. I was immediately attracted to the draftsmanship in the work. I knew this guy knew how to draw and draw well. Over the decades I was continually amazed at his work when I would see it at various galleries and frame shops. One of the earliest encounters with Bill's figurative work was a large nude of his wife depicted from the back while she was sorting through a closet. It was in the frame shop of Geoff Sacco's on Aurora Street. Shortly after I saw this painting, I did a painting of my own directly inspired by Bill's work.

Above - One of Bill Benson's large-scale landscape paintings incorporating geometric abstraction and painterly principles. The view is from a location southwest of Ithaca on Bostwick Hill Road. The painting is in the private collection of Gretchen Herrmann who happens to live near this spot.

The exhibit nicely presents two separate but related aspects of Bill's career; his explorations of geometric abstraction and process-oriented pieces along with his consummate portrayal of human character through his portraiture and other subjects portrayed in an academic type of realism. The abstracted explorations show a beautiful culmination and resolution to this urge to express the underlying principles of creating art.  Oftentimes viewers are impressed by the details and articulation of form in master paintings, say an Andrew Wyeth portrait or landscape, which is well deserved.  But Bill is serving art well when he shows us the interrelationships and dynamics of his work and his thinking.  We may think of other pure abstractionists like Kandinsky, Mondrian or the more hybrid painters like Diebenkorn, but for my money,  Bill's work is much more rewarding.  These design-oriented expressions show us the poetic rhymes of painting the beauty of the process itself independent of the subjects.   So many painters endeavor to do this in many different ways and Bill has achieved truly unique and memorable results. 

And then there is the color in these works that plays with abstraction. The color is nicely freed up in a way that perhaps the traditional realism of portraits do not allow for. There is a beauty here too in the liberation of color, intense blues in the shadows in certain pieces and divergent purples in others. At the same time in the same piece we can see the more traditional color or what is called local color conveyed. One piece, a large oil of a "Hot Cycle" child's toy uses bright primaries: red, yellow and blue in a daring way. Using primaries with such unadulterateded application may have been dissuaded in art schools, but Bill flaunts that idea with this successful work. Taking the quotidian object of a child's toy and finding in it an inspiration is quite enjoyable.

 We painters may also think of the idea of paint quality when looking at Benson's work, which means the beauty of the paint and the brushwork on its own merits regardless of the subject.  And here, too, all of Bill's work shows an appreciation and knowledge of how to express this aspect of the painter's craft. His portraits include this, with wonderfully fluid brushwork.  There's an Italian word that perfectly describes this quality, sprezzatura, which means a sort of effortless ease to execution.  The brushwork never seems to be self-aggrandizing, however, meaning that it serves to bring out form and personality in each sitter.  While viewing the group of Bill's portraits in this show, one small oil of a woman included these wonderful passages of cool, but subtle greens in the shadows.  And again, these are nicely understated hues that serve the portrait


The regional landscapes in the show bring out this blending of design, process and realism most fully.  Using outlines that are sometimes subtle and other times brazen in gold leaf or bright contrasting color, of circles, rectangles and squares with reference to the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence, we are allowed avenues to contemplate the surface relationships.  But with the wonderfully articulated landscapes combined with structural geometries we can also appreciate the wonderful light of the golden hour on landscapes of upstate New York that we all love.  Bill explains that some of the abstract elements are related to the serendipitous occurrences of for example, the glint of the sun on a windshield during a drive through the country.  Amazing and poetic as they are, we also appreciate time-honored Renaissance principles like perspective and drawing. In regards to the Renaissance, there is even a quote or reference to Leonardo's Vitruvian Man in one still life.

Above- A still life painting in the tradition of the Dutch Masters using the skull as a reference to the vanitas aspect. Take notice of the roughed-in figure in broad strokes, (shown within the large blue circle) which is a reference to Leonardo's Vitruvian Man.

Speaking of still life,  there are several paintings in this genre included.  They harken back to art history in their own way, specifically the Dutch Masters of the 17th century.  The type of still life that Bill often makes an homage to is the Vanitas type of still life. These works, also called momenti mori, or contemplations and meditations on the brevity of life, often include skulls.  The  skulls are often juxtaposed with perishable items, like flowers or fruit in the Dutch paintings, as with Bill's work.  His paintings with peaches are a case in point.  Bill explains that peaches are much more difficult to paint than an apple, because they don't provide the opportunity to portray the reflected light and smooth forms of a pear or apple.  Due to the fuzzy surface of peaches they are much more challenging to paint and show the roundness of their forms.  There is also a still life with a skull that shows white canvas and an actual wood frame that is suspended over the canvas.

The still life with peaches mentioned above was painted relatively early, before the experimentations with thinners, varnishes and spattered paint.  These latter usages of paint have a watercolor-like quality that show transparencies and opacities over untoned linen, so we can at times see the pure white gessoed surface.  One may think of the technique by watercolorists where they sprinkle salt to create special effects.  These processes of oil paint seem to embody deliberation and spontaneity at once.

When we consider Bill's autodidactic or self-trained career we are even more in awe.  Bill attended Cornell University, and graduated in 1972 with dual majors in Art History and Graphics.  Although Bill venerates his former teacher at Cornell in one of his portraits, he admits that he did not learn anything about realistic painting at Cornell.  Bill says that they basically gave you a set of acrylic paints and told you to go off and find your own way.   I have heard similar stories from others who have attended major universities where the guiding aesthetic seems to be that the less skill, craft or fundamentals that are imparted the better.  One could easily assume that Bill had trained in one the most rigorous academic ateliers, perhaps with Bouguereau, the French academician of the 19th century.  Instead his skill and understanding came through just hard work and study of the masters.

Bill has been represented at Portraits Incorporated in New York City and his career doing portraits is certainly a testament to his ability. Portraits Incorporated is a gallery and dealer in New York that represents some of the best portrait painters in the country. Several years ago, I organized a show of the region's portrait artists at the Blue Heron Gallery in Wyalusing, PA which Bill participated in. View a video of Bill working at the bottom of this essay.

Above- One of Bill's portraits. This oil of his son Cassady was inspired by a painting from the Italian Renaissance painter Titian.

And in reference to studying the old masters there are two works, portraits that show an homage to two old masters. One reference is to a portrait by Titian, the Italian Renaissance painter.  Titian painted an oil of a young boy, Ranuncio Farnese that Bill used or derived the basic pose for his portrait of his son Cassady.   The Titian portrait was in a retrospective  of the Italian master's work at the NGA in DC many years ago, which Bill visited. We also think of Rembrandt in this regard to being inspired  by a portrait of Titian, as he used a portrait by the Italian master for one of his own self portraits. The other portrait was inspired by the iconic painting of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.  For this work, Bill had his wife Sadie pose in the same position, with a head scarf and lighting similar to the Vermeer.  Instead of a pearl earring he chose to portray Sadie wearing a large ringed earring. The size of this canvas is the same as Jan Vermeer's  canvas.  And related to the work of Vermeer is another homage,  with the setting  contemporary and the kodachrome slide, this painting shows us a specific time period of our era. The lighting and interior pose show a wonderful adaptation of the Sphinx of Delft into contemporary terms.  We recall Vermeer's painting of the Geometer or his Woman with a Balance, which both used a model posed in the light of  a window while engaged in quiet domestic activity. Having seen the Vermeer retrospective last spring at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I was especially taken by these works.

Above- A painting of the author by Bill Benson. This oil on paper, 16" x 16" depicts Keeler painting in the garden across from the villa used by the workshop attendess in Barga, Italy. The proces-oriented work is shown here- with even an imprint of Benson's sneaker shown in the lower left.

The show at the Saltonstall Foundation does not include any of Bill's work portraying the nude, which is unfortunate.  There was a show of these works, charcoal drawings of Bill's many years ago at White Apple Gallery, which, before it burned was a forerunner of the State of the Art Gallery.   Bill's work with the figure is quite remarkable too. We both took a week-long figure painting workshop with the famous painter, Nelson Shanks many years ago at the Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia.  It would have been nice to see an example of some of these works in the show.  Still, this retrospective had just about the right amount of work and well placed.

 Bill and I also painted in Italy together in Barga, which is a small town north of Lucca in Tuscany.  While there we painted plein air Italian scenes and visited the Uffizi and other museums.  Upon our return we had a two-man show at the Community School of Music and Art here in Ithaca.

So I encourage you to view the exhibit before it is over as viewing the originals, especially paintings with such nuanced and complex structures, is always best in person. 

Above- Keeler and Benson painting plein air in Barga- northern Tuscany circa, 2008.

I have written this essay to express my appreciation for Bill and his work. I encourage you to see the video interview that I recorded at the exhibit where Bill speaks for himself and shares his ideas. As perfect as this setting is, one can easily wonder where the Johnson Museum is in honoring a native son?   Maybe for another time.

To view an interview with Bill Benson as he leads a guided tour through the exhibit- click on to this Youtube link

To view a video of Bill working on a portrait at the Blue Heron Gallery in Wyalusing, PA- view this youtube clip-

To learn more about the exhibit and the Saltonstall Foundation-

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