publication of the International Sculpture Center
Sculpture in Equilibrium: Fletcher Benton
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of work in progress at Bentons Dore Street Studio, 2004.
workplace is located in the light industry district of San Francisco.
The busy 6,000-square-foot space is 23 feet high and can easily hold the
forklift needed to assemble his large sculptures. It is filled with the
noise of hammering, cutting, and weldingwork performed by Bentons
assistants. It is amidst all this commotion that, working on a small metal
table, he makes his steel maquettes. On a lucky day, intuitionBenton
calls it his Magic Mancomes into play, and he will be
able to finish a maquette, a process in which precision is guided by inspiration.
Benton loves precisely
made models and has placed his own in a sparsely appointed, meticulously
arranged room above his work space, which houses, in addition to his works,
a fine collection of World War II American, British, German, and Japanese
fighter and bomber aircraft, made to a 1:48 scale by an exU.S. Marine
and a German biochemist turned model makers. Among the models is a Junkers
87, known as the Stuka B, which was the German warplane that bombed Guerníca
during the Spanish Civil War: My homage to Picasso, Benton
says. He has also commissioned models of famous sailing ships such as
the Cutty Sark, the Constitution, and the H.M.S. Victory, all crafted
to scale with consummate skill. An elaborate electric railroad travels
around close to the ceiling of one room, to the delight of the artist
and his visitors. One senses the grown-up boys delight in his model
planes, trains, and ships. His living room, in the penthouse of the building,
is furnished with vintage Bauhaus furniture by Mies van der Rohe and Marcel
Breuer, as well as recent work by the noted Oakland craftsman Gary Bennett.
and Yang (position 1), 1965.
Aluminum, wood, and lacquer,
kinetic work 18 in. diameter .
Born in the coal-
and iron-producing district of southern Ohio, Benton was a successful
sign painter as a youth. He attended college at Miami University in Oxford,
Ohio, after mustering out of the Navy, and he moved to San Francisco in
1956. He began as an instructor at the California College of Arts and
Crafts and then went to Europe, traveling by motorcycle through Scandinavia,
Holland, and France; he spent some time in Paris and then in New York.
Back in San Francisco in 1961, he had a solo exhibition at the California
Palace of the Legion of Honor, showing his portraits of fellow artists
like David Simpson and William Morehouse. Benton, however, is rarely seen
as a Bay Area artist. His mature work as a sculptor is in the Constructivist
tradition and differs entirely from mainstream Bay Area sculpture. Sculptors
here have transformed ceramics into sculpture, made Funk pieces, and,
as exemplified by Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, and Stephen de Staebler,
made figurative sculpture. This is not the tradition in which Benton seems
Folded Square Alphabet U, 1980.
Varnished steel, 10 x 8 x 8 ft.
He speaks highly
of Peter Voulkos, among California artists, but it is the achievement
of dynamic equilibrium within the stability of geometry in John McLaughlins
paintings that Benton most admires. Among his elders in American sculpture,
he esteems David Smith and George Rickey, with whom he formed a friendship
when his work was shown in the first international exhibition of kinetic
sculpture at the University Art Museum in Berkeley (in the interest of
full disclosure, I curated this exhibition). Here, Bentons work
was shown with that of the movements leaders: artists such as Rickey,
Pol Bury, Len Lye, Takis, and Jean Tinguely. In January 1966, Benton was
featured with some of these artists in Time magazines article on
the Movement movement. And Benton, heretofore known only locally, came
to international attention.
Watercolor Triangle Ring, 1993. Painted steel, 66 ft. high.
Work installed in Cologne, Germany.
His work at the time
consisted of motorized paintings, and he was fascinated by being able
to usemovementtimeto make art. He soon found, however, that
pieces such as Yin and Yang (1965) showed their repetitive cycles too
clearly, and, although he was showing at the Whitney Annual and the International
Exposition in Osaka, he decided to risk his substantial reputation as
a painter and to begin working in three dimensions, bending flat pieces
of paper or cardboard into three-dimensional figurations in the early
series of Folded Circles and Folded Square Alphabets
that occupied him during the 1970s. Made of bronze, aluminum, or steel,
they were frequently painted in primary colors. By the 1980s, in the Balanced/Unbalanced
series, he began to play with gravity, working with cubo-geometric formssquares,
circles, triangles, rods, and rings. He clearly had fun making these sculptures,
large and small, often adding playful elements to offset the severe Euclidean
Construct Relief: Ode to Kandinsky, 1997. Steel, 21 x 21 x 6 in.
In 1993 he received
a major commission to build a gigantic sculpture in Cologne. Awkwardly
named Steel Watercolor Triangle Ring, this elegant red tower, 66 feet
high, points skyward in fluent grace. While putting this tower in place
in Colognes Barbarossaplatz, he saw an exhibition of Malevich at
the Ludwig Museum and a model of Tatlins Monument to the Third International
in Düsseldorf. He became convinced of something he had only assumed
before: he was a disciple of Constructivism. He knows that true originality
is not a matter of the innocent eye, but that artistic identity
is established in relation to the artists antecedents. Malevich
and Kandinsky became paradigmatic to his work. Many of the early abstract
artists felt that their new art had great potential power, and Malevich
had postulated that Suprematism could make the world into a true
model of perfection.
Donut with Zig and Balls, 2003.
Cor-ten steel, 111 x 94 x 72 in.
Such utopian faith
is not available to artists today, and, for an artist like Benton, the
forms developed by these masters of early abstraction are sufficient unto
themselves. The tilted square in Malevichs monochrome paintings
finds an echo in Bentons three-dimensional steel paintings. The
circles, semicircles, triangles, bars, and checkerboards in Kandinskys
paintings of the early 1920s are imported into contemporary aesthetics
in Bentons Construct Reliefs. His Odes to Kandinsky
(199597) are steel reliefs that consist of rods set at right angles
with rings, triangles, and staggered grids in balanced compositions that
renew the viewers understanding of the almost inexhaustible possibilities
offered within the framework of geometric construction. When Benton feels
he has achieved his objective in a work, he speaks of its inherent
rightness, reminding us of Kandinskys inner sound,
except that for Kandinsky this concept had express spiritual significance.
on Blocks: Three on
One with Balls, 2002.
Steel with patina, 46 x 17 x 12 in.
step was to fashion steel paintings in which the rods, rectangles, and
metal squares, falling downward, are set into steel frames. These works
are meant to hang on the wall with no backing, so that the steel construction
seems to float freely in space. They are intended to be seen in pairs:
Open Constructs T (2003) exemplifies this innovative series.
Square concept continues to be a central form in Bentons work.
It appears again on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley
as Folded Circle Trio (1999). When the Haas Business School, the last
building designed by the renowned architect Charles Moore, was completed
a work by Benton was selected for one of its courtyards. As suggested
by its title, the piece consists of circular, square, and oblong forms.
They are engaged in a dynamic rhythmic interaction with each other and
with the negative space suggested by the solid forms; the void, which
echoes the large open arches of the building, is a vital element of the
Folded Circle Ring, 1992. Bronze, 36 ft. high. Work installed at
the Euroclear Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
In 2000 Benton began
his Donut series, finding inherent rightness in
works such as Tilted Donut with Zig and Balls (2003), in which balance
appears to defy gravity. Having worked with circular forms for decades,
he now achieved a remarkable illusion. As the viewer moves and different
aspects of donut, poles, semicircle, balls, and zigzags come to the fore,
the sculpture appears to change so strikingly as to be almost a different
work from each perspective. The balls and zig, being smaller elements,
lend import to the large circular form, informing the work with monumental
presence. Donut with 3 Balls (2001), captured by the eminent photographer
of sculpture David Finn on Bentons property in the Napa wine country,
illustrates how placing this geometric steel structure into the rolling
hills and vineyards makes for an eloquent contrast between nature and
on Bentons workPaul Karlstrom, Carter Ratcliffhave noted
that it is marked by duality: palpable sculpture and illusionary painting,
the slim and the blocky, the circle and the square, emotion and restraint.
In his finest recent work, Benton, now in his 70s, seems to have found
most recent book is Nathan Oliveira, University of California Press, 2002.
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