Lifelong New Yorker Deborah Benjamin made a promise when she began painting her beloved Hudson River landscapes: “After taking a while to do them, it will become more of a conversation with the viewer.”
On the occasion of Landscape’s release, the museum’s Claire Vaye Watkins curated an exhibition that celebrates the women behind some of Benjamin’s own beloved landscapes, like the Hudson River Place Pool (1989), the majestic Mark Twain Montage (1996), and The River Head of Columbus Station (2015), all of which highlight both the landscape and the women’s changing identities through color and light. “Deborah Benjamin,” Watkins writes, “would be forgiven for simply copying the Mark Twain montage in her studio … but her recent work more likely would draw its inspiration from it, emphasizing the fluidity of women’s experience.”
There is a stark but intricate line between Benjamin’s personal and professional selves. After running a successful mail order business (toying toys sold through catalogues), the artist relocated from Westchester to New York City in 1980 to pursue a master’s in fine arts at the School of Visual Arts. Her move into the city sparked a series of artistic mutations. She began painting indoors as a way to pay bills, which caught the eye of Robert Alberts, then a director at a highly influential group show known as the Intimate Conversations With Women exhibition. Alberts cast Benjamin in the 1995 exhibition by directing her to paint a portrait of a veiled woman found in Amsterdam. As a result, the blurred line between personal and professional disappeared, allowing Benjamin to redefine herself through her work.
“The main idea was to get the sense of a real individual and not a woman painter,” Benjamin says. “I was painting [rather] than thinking about what I was painting and who I was painting.”
Although The Intimate Conversations With Women features work by famous female artists like Louise Bourgeois, Virginia Thompson, Louise Bourgeois, Gertrude Stein, Marian Sharno, and Maya Lin, it was Benjamin’s paintings that received the most attention, and no one wanted to go away before they got to see the artist in action. “There were so many people that were waiting,” Benjamin says, “and they were all looking at me like, ‘This is so interesting, you look different inside than you do with the paintbrush, you look very nervous.’”