Fletcher Benton’s 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 welding—work performed by Benton’s assistants. It is amidst all this commotion that, working on a small metal table, he makes his steel maquettes. On a lucky day, intuition—Benton calls it his “Magic Man”—comes 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 ex–U.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 boy’s 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.
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 to fit.
He speaks highly of Peter Voulkos, among California artists, but it is the achievement of dynamic equilibrium within the stability of geometry in John McLaughlin’s 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, Benton’s work was shown with that of the movement’s 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 magazine’s article on the Movement movement. And Benton, heretofore known only locally, came to international attention.
His work at the time consisted of motorized paintings, and he was fascinated by being able to use movement—time—to 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 forms—squares, circles, triangles, rods, and rings. He clearly had fun making these sculptures, large and small, often adding playful elements to offset the severe Euclidean geometric forms.
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 Cologne’s Barbarossaplatz, he saw an exhibition of Malevich at the Ludwig Museum and a model of Tatlin’s 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 artist’s 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.”
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 Malevich’s monochrome paintings finds an echo in Benton’s three-dimensional steel paintings. The circles, semicircles, triangles, bars, and checkerboards in Kandinsky’s paintings of the early 1920s are imported into contemporary aesthetics in Benton’s “Construct Reliefs.” His “Odes to Kandinsky” (1995–97) are steel reliefs that consist of rods set at right angles with rings, triangles, and staggered grids in balanced compositions that renew the viewer’s 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 Kandinsky’s “inner sound,” except that for Kandinsky this concept had express spiritual significance.
Benton’s next 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.
The “Folded Square” concept continues to be a central form in Benton’s 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 sculpture.
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 Benton’s 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 manmade artifact.
Previous writers on Benton’s work—Paul Karlstrom, Carter Ratcliff—have 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 harmonious resolution.
Peter Selz’s most recent book is Nathan Oliveira, University of California Press, 2002.