Sunday, August 30, 2020

In Memoriam: Julie Karabenick


“I find the expressive power of geometric shapes compelling. Across time and place, we have used these simple forms to assert our most profound beliefs—about the nature of our everyday world and what may lie beyond, about our personal, social and spiritual identities, and about the rhythms and cycles of our lives. I was drawn to these forms—to the geometric markings that our early ancestors made on rocks, cave walls, and their bodies and to the geometric patterns found in nature from microcosm to macrocosm—long before I came to admire the use of geometric form in modern art.”



Julie Karabenick, Contact, 2019, acrylic on panel, 24 inches diameter
Opening quote from Julie's website; inset photo of Julie with Composition #78, 2008, from her Facebook page



We Have Lost a Colleague and Friend

The art world is a little bit smaller with the passing of Julie Karabenick. A painter of exquisitely realized geometric abstractions and the curator of Geoform, an international resource of abstract geometric art, Julie touched many lives both personal and professional. She was smart, scholarly, generous, and kind. I was fortunate to have her as a friend for 15 years.

Julie died on August 8, a week after the passing of her husband, Stuart, a teacher and mentor at the University of Michigan who liked his job so much he never really retired. She was 73, he 80. No details for either death were provided by the family, but as the rabbi noted at Julie’s service, “People are not how we die. We are how we live.” 

Both lived a full life surrounded by Julie’s art; their daughters, Leah and Rachel; Stuart’s two children from a previous marriage, Robin Leavy and Scott Karabenick; their extended families and grandchildren; books (both held Ph.Ds in psychology); and a huge circle of friends. For a self-described introvert, Julie had an enormous circle, some of whom will be commenting here.  

Julie and Stuart in an undated photo. From Julie's Facebook pace, posted by Rachel Karabenick



"I love Karabenick’s art activism on Geoform. If you don’t know the site you should take a look. It’s rich with many artist interviews and loads of images. Karabenick’s one-woman crusade to educate about artists who make this type of work is generous and a great public service." --Roberta Fallon, Artblog, 2008



The Beginnings of Geoform

Julie contacted me back in late 2004. I forget how she made the initial contact, but I ended up on a long phone call with this woman from Ann Arbor, her broad, flat Midwestern intonations crisscrossing the wireless waves with my speedy Manhattan-by-way-of-Massachusetts accent. She was launching a scholarly research website called Geoform, she said, and she wanted me to be part of it. Geoform? It sounded like a mining project, or maybe a New Age habitation initiative. But no, it was to be a serious site dedicated to what she described as “geometric form and structure in contemporary abstract art.” Her plan was for it to be international, which it was from the very beginning. At last count the project contained 350 artists from 33 countries. Julie was so informed and so sincere that without knowing much more than that, I agreed to participate. 

Right: A recent screen grab of the Geoform site


We met in Manhattan at a corner table at a diner in Chelsea, a vegan and a non-meat-eater surrounded by bacon and burgers. It was the wrong venue for us, but we plunged into conversation anyway. Part of her plan, she said, was to augment the site with artist interviews, a way to deepen the reader’s engagement with this genre about which she was so passionate, and not incidentally to bring greater recognition to the artists themselves. The next meeting during her visit was at the more dietarily compatible Souen, a macrobiotic restaurant in SoHo, where I joined Julie and Stuart as well as Laurie Fendrich. I think Julie was heartened by the early support that Laurie and I offered, but it was clear she was fully motivated to pursue the project, whether we supported it or not.  

Julie’s research was far ranging. At the time I was writing about the art fairs in New York and Miami for this blog, so I had a sense of the international scope of geometric abstraction. Julie found artists I’d never heard of whose work was wonderful. And she did it not by traipsing through endless booths in endless fairs (rheumatoid arthritis limited her travel) but by dogged online research, followed by outreach and extended communication with each artist.


Curated Exhibitions

While she was finding and adding new artists to Geoform and conducting Interviews for the site, Julie was formulating plans for what she hoped would be a series of curated exhibitions. Two were realized. (Disclaimer: I was fortunate to have been included in both.)  The first was Engaging the Structural at the Broadway Gallery in SoHo in 2005. Never one to do things halfway, Julie got Lily Wei to write an essay for the show. The following year, ORDER(ed) took place at Gallery Siano in Philadelphia. Roberta Fallon wrote the essay, this time with a catalog.

Not only did Julie do a marvelous job of bringing Geoform artists together aesthetically in real time and space, she was the catalyst for many friendships between and among us. She would remain the nucleus for many such connections as Geoform expanded. 




Engaging the Structural 
Broadway Gallery, New York City, April 5-30, 2005






Panoramic view. Left wall: Timothy App (Maryland), Siri Berg (New York), Tim McFarlane (Pennsylvania), Julie Karabenick (Michigan); remainder from left: Cecily Kahn (New York), Howard R. Barnhart (Maine), Laurie Fendrich (New York), Christine Vaillancourt (Massachusetts), W.C. Richardson (Maryland), Gail Gregg (New York), Joanne Mattera (New York), Marjorie Mikasen (Nebraska)
Photo courtesy Howard R. Barnhart.


“As a psychologist and artist, Karabenick is fascinated by the primal power that geometric figures continue to exert. For Karabenick, who is passionate about geometric form and pattern, one impulse in organizing Engaging the Structural was to show the diversity of contemporary geometric abstraction and to marvel at the continued vitality of this historic tradition. Artists, Karabenick proves, are still drawn to the richness of its syntax, a syntax that seems inexhaustible.” 
—Lilly Wei, from “Geometry Reloaded,” NY Arts Magazine, May-June, 2005



 ORDER(ed) 
Gallery Siano, Philadelphia, May 5-June 17, 2006


 Partial panorama of ORDER(ed) from left: Cheryl Goldsleger (Georgia); Grace DeGennaro (Maine), twoworks; Julie Gross (New York), two works; Marjorie Mikasen (Nebraska); W.C. Richardson (Maryland); Laurie Fendrich (New York), two works; Joanne Mattera (New York), four works; Tremain Smith (Pennsylvania), two works 
Photo courtesy Howard R. Barnhart showing eight of the 17 artists in the show

Other artists: Steven Baris (Pennsylvania), Howard Barnhart (Maine), Mark Brown (North Carolina), Gail Gregg (New York), Julie Karabenick (Michigan), Burton Kramer (Canada), Tim McFarlane (Pennsylvania), Alex Queral (Pennsylvania) 


"In complex abstract paintings that allude to music, science, maps, the realm of the spirit and more, the artists of Order(ed) describe relationships and structures that capture some truth about life in our busy, often turbulent, and always surprising world. From a vocabulary of regular and repeating shapes and lines, the artists build visual structures that hint at chaos and point to the age-old need of humans to impose order on the world. 
--Roberta Fallon, from the catalog essay, "Beauty, Order and Individuality"

Right: The catalog with a page opened to the work of Julie Gross




"I have always been fascinated by the expansive power of simple geometric forms. For most of my career, my work has explored diverse approaches to combining these forms to create complex structures that engage the viewer through multiple and fluctuating readings."  --Julie Karabenick in A Few Conversations About Color



A Selection of Julie's Work

Julie described herself as "resolute" in her pursuit of geometry in art. Of course the work changed over time--this selection starts with the most recent and  goes back almost 20 years--but complexity of composition, clarity of color, and a pristine, uninflected surface are hallmarks of the work throughout its development. The early paintings featured compositions flat against the picture plane. Any sense of space came from the size of the rectilinear elements and colors that advanced or receded. Small color blocks piqued the eye. One series, produced between 2010 and 2012 introduced a Mondrianic boogie-woogie jumpiness; Julie even turned several squares on their points, a brash and unexpected move. Over time Julie introduced spatial ambiguity--interlocking rectangles, stylized house shapes, diagonals that suggested perspective, and more recently tondos whose compositions contained faceted elements aswim in chromatic pools, each element connected by fine lines to the others. These new tondos offered something celestial, cosmic. Oh, to have seen where she might have taken them, or where they might have taken us.



Jackknife World, 2020, acrylic on panel, 26 inches diameter




Sun Worship, 2019, acrylic on panel, 24 inches diameter



Blue Orbis, 2018, acrylic on panel, 20 inches diameter



#57, 2017, acrylic on panel, 26 x 26 inches




#50, 2016 acrylic on panel, 29 x 29 inches



# 47, 2015, acrylic on panel, 28 x 28 inches





Composition 91, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 45 x 45 inches




Composition 71, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 28 inches




Composition 47, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 28 inches



Some of Julie's Exhibitions

Julie had eight solo shows, two two-artist exhibitions, and numerous group shows around the country. I've included images to which I had access, but you will find a full listing on her website.

Architectural Fantasies
The Painting Center, solo exhibition, 2015




From the The Painting Center website: "Each painting features complex and intricately balanced clusters of architectural fragments and forms that simultaneously clamor for the viewer’s attention. Each cluster presses forward toward the viewer in an impossibly shallow space that defies a single, coherent reading. Ambiguities abound as flat shapes intermix freely with shapes that imply volume, and multiple perspective systems clash." 


. . . . . . . .


OnEdge
The Painting Center, New York City, 2018, curated by Susan Post 


A PDF catalog of the exhibition is viewable here

Installation view with work by Anthony Falcetta, Audrey Stone, and Julie Karabenick

From the website: "The Painting Center presents OnEdge, featuring ten contemporary artists whose abstractions dive head-on into both the literal and the metaphoric subject of the edge. Selected from among more than 70 artists currently on the Art File, a curated online gallery on The Painting Center’s website, these artists use color and line to evoke and/or confound the simulation of space."

. . . . . . . .


A Few Conversations About Color
DM Contemporary, New York City, 2015, curated by Joanne Mattera


Installation view, from left: Nancy Natale, Joanne Freedman, Matthew Langley, Ruth Hiller, Julie Karabenick, Joanne Mattera
(Not pictured: Damian Hoar de Galvan)


Julie Karabenick, #12, 2013, acrylic on panel, 22 x 22 inches

As curator of this exhibition, I knew I had to include Julie's work. What would a conversation about color be without it? Here's a bit of how I described her work: Julie Karabenick uses the language of structure--interlocking geometric shapes--whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. . . Karabenick plots her compositions on the computer to create chromatically intense paintings with exquisite precision.

A PDF catalog of the exhibition is viewable here
That's Julie's painting, on the cover, below: #13, 2013, acrylic on panel, 22 x 22 inches
Ruth Hiller designed the catalog







Remembering Julie

My voice is just one in a chorus of friends and admirers--what Steven Baris describes a "vast artistic ecosystem" that formed around Julie--so I yield to them to complete this memorial. (Each artist is accompanied by an image from Geoform of her or his work.) Would you like to contribute to the conversation? I invite you to post in the Comment section below your reminiscences, anecdotes, or expressions of grief. 



The young Julie, posted on her Facebook page 
by Leah Karabenick



Tracey Adams, artist

My first encounter with Julie was in 2007, as part of an almost yearlong interview process for Geoform. I had never considered the possibility of such a time-consuming and thorough interview, yet I learned more about myself as well as Julie during the time we sent emails back and forth. Shortly thereafter, Julie, Stuart and I met for coffee in Santa Fe as she was part of an inaugural exhibition at David Richard Gallery.

We had weekly or biweekly phone conversations until her untimely death on August 8. Stuart would often get on the phone and ask me about Big Sur and Carmel, yearning to revisit these places. It almost happened earlier this year but was preempted by Covid 19.

Besides being a consummate scholar and writer, Julie was an extraordinary artist, spending months working on a single painting until she felt it was completed. Her latest series of circular shaped panels with bursts of brightly colored triangular patterns showed a more playful side. Julie understood what her work was about and she never backed down in her pursuit to stay the path in order to paint what was important to her, rather than to an audience. More than anything she wanted her work to be included in exhibitions that focused on geometric form.

Julie was gentle, compassionate and generous. When we were chatting a few years ago, she mentioned the importance of drawing in my practice. The following week, an iPad Pro with an Apple pencil arrived from Julie and Stuart as they hoped I might enjoy drawing on a digital device. In turn, I sent them a painting which hangs in their home. Julie’s concern for the underdog was her beacon as she supported many non-profit organizations that focused on animals, the environment and politics, and more.

Julie’s thirst for spiritual connection and understanding was a journey we shared as we read the same books and often discussed how to incorporate these teachings into our lives during these challenging times. I will miss her deeply and hope that her soul is at peace.



Steven Baris, artist

In my mind the dates and details are blurred, but Julie, as a person, a friend, and an artist, remains vivid as ever. I cannot say for sure when she first contacted me to participate in her curatorial masterpiece, Geoform, but I would guess it to have been around 2005. What anchors those early memories of our friendship was my good fortune to be included the following year in a remarkable group exhibition she curated titled Order(ed). Not only was it an especially memorable collection of artists but it initiated, for me, several long-lasting relationships that continue to this day. In retrospect, I realize that facilitating connections and community was one of Julie’s many talents.  

To know Julie as a fellow artist was to participate in a long-term, intermittent dialog about what is happening with each others’ work—to comment on and to celebrate both the big leaps and the incremental changes. She was always so supportive of my work, and I would like to think that I was equally so with hers. Indeed, the two of us have come a very long way since we first met, and I am greatly saddened that her explorations have come to an untimely end. She will be sorely missed, but her extraordinary artwork will live on in the vast artistic ecosystem she helped to create.



William Conger, artist

I first met Julie in 2007 when she interviewed me for her Geoform website.  She began with a studio visit and we became immediate friends. Soon afterwards, Julie and her husband, Stuart, visited Kathy and me at our home in Chicago for an afternoon of lively talk about art and life.  After months of emailing and phone calls, marked by exacting questions and edits, Julie’s Geoform interview was completed. It’s the best interview I’ve had in linking specific work to commentary. Later, I was pleased that she agreed to include it in my 2010 Retrospective catalog. We remained in touch. Her last email to me came just weeks ago, in July, when she simply and characteristically asked how I was doing. I had long admired Julie’s complex geometric paintings and attended her Chicago exhibitions. I sometimes wondered if she was not curtailing her own studio time as she tirelessly aided other artists’ careers on Geoform. But Geoform is a masterpiece in its serious and professional showcasing of new geometric abstract painting around the world. It will endure. Recently, I saw that Julie was completing her new circular paintings that show terrific expressive energy and formal rigor. They are memorable and complex paintings. They will endure. They contradict the tragedy of her untimely passing by celebrating both optimistic exuberance and calm firmness of total artistic commitment.  



Roberta Fallon, art critic and editor of Artblog

Julie reached out to me in October 2005 when she was organizing a 17-person abstract art exhibition in Philadelphia and invited me to write the catalog essay for the show. Between October 2005 and May 2006, Julie and I had numerous and intensely focused conversations via email and phone.  We talked about the show, its title, the catalog, the publicity, and about pulling together a panel to speak about abstract art.  Julie, who was the curator as well as an artist of dazzling geometric paintings in her own right, treated me as an equal, a collaborator. She was a wonderful collaborator. Humble yet exacting, full of great ideas but an excellent listener, she always seemed to want to make things best for everyone. She was generous with her thoughts, comments and praise. And she moved mountains. She got things done. The intense connection Julie and I formed during 2005-2006 created a lasting friendship, and even though I heard irregularly from Julie after that, when an email arrived from her, it was always filled with her wonderful kind spirit. And that is how I will remember her, as a wonderful kind spirit. 



Laurie Fendrich, artist

In my most recent online conversations with Julie Karabenick a couple of months ago, we talked about how in an age of Covid, intense identity issues, and wretched politics, it was hard to hold onto the idea that abstract painting holds meaning for anyone other than the artists who make it. Yet when I look at Julie’s oeuvre, including her most recent paintings, I don’t see doubt; I see vigorous, confident, lively, colorful and smartly geometric paintings valiantly defying doubt.  Julie was not an idealist, either in her outlook or her art. She believed that bringing the reason and simplicity of geometry to bear on abstract painting was one of the best painterly routes to discovering beauty and finding outward-reaching meaning, but she had a wry sense of humor about everything, and clearly saw the futility of idealism.

Georges Braque famously said he loved the rule that corrects the emotion. Julie’s art epitomizes this pithy saying, for her jazzy spiritedness is always yoked to rules—implied, that is, but never rigid. The idea of the necessity of rules also shows up on Geoform, her brilliantly conceived and meticulously maintained project of curating and preserving an online presence for geometric abstract painting, where the artists selected invoke, to one degree or another, the glorious rigor and beauty of geometry.

When I was interviewed for Geoform in 2007, Julie conducted multiple interview sessions with me by phone. At the start, I was thrilled, but soon I found myself wondering, “Haven’t I answered everything already?” She’d say, almost apologetically, that she still didn’t quite understand something I’d said in a previous conversation and wanted me to try to explain it one more time. The thing is that by persevering, she got me explain it better.

Only now do I see that Julie’s pursuit of the truth about what other abstract painters do and think was never a search for “absolute truth,” like some kind of Platonic form. Nor was it a survey of geometric abstract painters. It was a search for words that, for all the limitations inherent in language, came closest to what abstract painting means.  When she nudged artists to go further and explain more, she was nudging both herself and us to abandon our language of conceit, delusion, cliché and artblat.

In my online correspondence with Julie over the several years I knew her, and in the several face-to-face encounters we had—almost always with her wonderful husband Stuart—I saw someone who strove to “get things right” in everything from her painting to her family, her vegetarian lifestyle, and her politics.  We who knew her miss her, but are grateful for her friendship, the legacy of her art, and Geoform. 



Howard Hersh, artist

I felt very honored when Julie included me in the Geoform site.  It was early in its creation, and early in my participation on social media.  No matter how large Geoform became, Julie was always available to share and compare thoughts and strategies for Geoform and in a greater sense, geometric abstraction's place in the art world. I'm sure I'm not the only artist who felt that they knew Julie well, despite having never met her in person.  She was just that kind of person.  Rest in peace, Julie.





Emily Lenz, Director and Partner, D. Wigmore Fine Art.

I was introduced to Julie Karabenick’s site, Geoform, by Joanne Mattera in 2010. Joanne was in to see our 1960s geometric paintings show, Op Out of Ohio, featuring Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski and recommended I check out Geoform. I was impressed with the quality of Julie’s interviews and the geometric artists she presented on her site. We connected and Julie interviewed three of our gallery artists: Julian Stanczak, Ed Mieczkowski, and Tadasky. Julie had a special touch as an interviewer--likely because she was an artist as well as a generous, sensitive person. In particular she did an incredible job on Tadasky’s interview. Tadasky opened up to Julie slowly and she had the patience to persevere with lots of back and forth emails and phone calls. Her approach opened Tadasky to talk more about the intention of his work and his personal history. Her interview stands as the best history of Tadasky’s life and work. I am honored to be able to link my gallery website to Julie’s significant project Geoform. 



Suzan Shutan, artist

I first met Julie when I reached out to her about Geoform, a website that kept popping up in my feed with so many artists I knew. I was excited to see an entire website dedicated to contemporary global artists whose work was committed to the sphere of geometry in new and exciting ways. I felt my work deserved to be part of this community, so I reached out to Julie on Facebook to connect with a private message. She responded right away. At first, Julie did not see my work’s connection and needed to be persuaded about how it linked (since it’s nestled in organic geometry). This led to my showing her more work, then earlier work, and even earlier work that went back to my roots.

The interesting part was an entire year’s worth of conversations that grew more frequent, richer and deeper over time. Not only did we discuss my work and her work and our motivations and art history and the art world, but we began sharing the intimacy of our personal lives. It was a slow growth that led to a rich friendship and reminded me of when I lived in the Midwest. People observed you like they observed the growth of crops. Once they began to tend to you they made sure that you grew and friendships became solid and lasting. This was Julie, a unique and truly special character trait. She wanted to know you from your seedling, from inside out.

Geoform, her legacy, is a community she built. She observed,  planted, seeded, grew it and tended to it. This community, built from her own artworks passion, is one of mutual understanding and respect, of sharing and support, a reflection of all that Julie was. 



Barbara Stanczak, artist 

Dearest Julie and Stuart, I love you and miss you! You enriched our life! I want to remember you as the curious couple smiling and fascinated in every detail of our art-making and life-history. Your Geoform interview with Julian is precious because of the depth of exploration and minute detail of observation. And Stuart was there correcting the punctuation and word choices; you were exquisite collaborators in art and life.

When you wrote the essay for my publication, your fascination with the creative process—which you as a sensitive practicing artist knew well— explored the dimensions of space and materials within this new universe of visual decision making. It remains the best publication and clearest insight into my work to date. I thank you for it. And I thank you for your friendship and human closeness, your smile and enthusiasm, your total dedication to any enterprise undertaken. Knowing Stuart and you has enriched our lives and when I think of you two, I smile, recollecting the evening we read Winnie the Pooh in Latin! 

(Photo is of Barbara and her late husband, Julian Stanczak. Julian's work is on the Geoform site. Barbara's organic forms are not; click on her name to see her work.)



Stuart and Julie at Barbara Stanczak's opening at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2011
Photo courtesy of  Barbara Stanczak


Closing notes: Julie's website and Facebook page will remain online, as will Geoform. Her daughters, Leah and Rachel, are managing the 80-some paintings she left behind. An exhibition or sale may be forthcoming. They will post information on Julie's Facebook page, and I'll share whatever I learn in an update to this post.

Rest in peace, Julie and Stuart. I hope you knew how loved and respected you are. And now, how much you are missed.

5 comments:

  1. A beautiful and fitting tribute to a wonderful artist and a great person. It is wonderful to hear about her from so many lucky artists who got to know her well.
    I didn’t know her but admired her work. I feel I missed knowing her.

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  2. We are forever indebted to Julie for the Geoform interview she did with Tadasky. It took more than a year of correspondence and several meetings but her intelligent and patient approach to getting him to speak for himself paid off immensely. It was an enjoyable and enriching experience to get to know Julie and Stuart during these visits. Julie's Geoform interviews with Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski among others, are also memorable for me, providing unique insight into those artists and their work.

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  3. Thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful tribute to Julie, Joanne! She is already missed by many, that is clear. Her exhaustive efforts on behalf of other artists in compiling Geoform and her own practice as well were apparent to the end. With her most recent body of work Julie was in her full powers as an artist. A very sad loss!

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  4. This lovely tribute to Julie not only documents your friendship with her and connection to Geoform but enumerates the lasting contribution Julie made to geometric abstraction and to the lives of artists painting in that oeuvre. She was so modest and unassuming in her manner despite her great facility with composition and paint. I was privileged to be invited to participate in Geoform and found Julie so generous and pleasant to work with. Meeting Julie and Stuart at the reception for A Few Conversations About Color in New York was memorable for me. I hope that her work will be fittingly acclaimed in an exhibition of her remaining 80 paintings that will highlight her accomplishments and benefit her daughters.

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