Ben Berlin (Attributed)
Untitled surreal portrait of a transgendered figure
watercolor, pencil on paper
11 1/4 x 8 1/2
Excellent condition; remnants of glue on reverse
Provenance: the artist Kinichi Nakanishi; private collection Los Angeles.
Ben Berlin (1887-1939) was a modernist painter, draughtsman and printmaker working mostly in Los Angeles in the first and second quarters of the 20th century. Berlin was impoverished for most of his life and suffered from severe alcoholism. The few surviving images of his work reveal an artist with cubist and surrealist tendencies, and an interest in Asian imagery and culture. He worked on the WPA in Los Angeles, overseen by Lorser Feitelsen, and was briefly associated with Feitelsen, Helen Lundeberg and the post surrealists. Berlin and Kinichi Nakanichi, whose collection this portrait came from, were both members of the Art Students League of Los Angles around 1920. It was common for league members to paint each other’s portraits and for these portraits to remain either in the collection of the artist or the sitter. This startling image, possibly a portrait inspired by Nakanichi, features a figure with a male face, bald head, implied mustache, and female breasts whose feathery limbs and winged body blend into an abstract background.
"Ben Berlin created the unique paintings that he is best known for today throughout his long association with the League. He would continuously experiment with different ideas and styles, and his wild abstract visions must be ranked among the most unusual work ever produced by a League artist.... Sadly, while the experimental abstractions were clearly his style of choice, he reportedly gave most of them away because they did not appeal to then-contemporary buyers. Boris Deutsch, a fellow student from the League, would observe that Ben Berlin's abstract work "will be remembered 200 years from now for his strange adventures in paint, while virtually all other California painters of this period will be forgotten."
—A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles 1906-1953
Pasadena Museum of California Art
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