Abstract Figuration: Ben Schonzeit

On view at the Nassau County Museum of Art
Through November 6, 2016

By Debbie Wells, Artful Circle


Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Ben Schonzeit fondly remembers his childhood days consisting of idyllic times and the familiar objects that filled his home. There, the pint-sized boy child prodigy amazed the neighborhood with his relentless interest in art. When he graduated from the prestigious Cooper Union in New York City, at that time, Abstract Expressionism was the newest trend and he was thrilled to be in Manhattan—the stomping grounds of the greats of the time, like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman.

In the 1970’s, he gained fame as one of the leading Photorealist artists of our time. Best known for his magnificent large-scale photorealistic paintings that include still life of food and flowers, his work showcases artfully composed everyday objects, such as beautiful glass vases and figurines. Schonzeit never relied on the typical techniques, as he has the unsurpassed ability to delight the eye purposely making the subject appear sharp or blurry. Using a camera’s macro-lens as a tool to create massive close-ups, his expert draftsmanship, combined with his sense of color, composition and avant-garde perspective, positions him with the greatest twentieth-century artists. When asked when he knows a painting is complete, he simply stated, “When it is alive, it is done.”

This exhibit portrays another dimension to Ben Schonzeit’s familiar body of work. “Beginning in 1966 when I was a photorealist painter, I would make these other kinds of art on my days off. I’m not just a photorealist or realist artist. I create collages, sculptures, draw from life and take photographs. I don’t have a brand.”

dsc_0031Whether of wood, paper collage or on canvas, this series is warm and engaging, just like the artist himself. His trademark vibrant color palette is restrained in these works, but doesn’t shy away from a dramatic pop of color. His figures are more angular and geometric, but still convey a sense of humanity. Although reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s cubist designs, Schonzeit demonstrates his own aesthetic in every media. His sculptures, tiny or sizeable, are sometimes made of all wood or pieces of found objects such as a furniture leg or playing dice. These stacked sculptures also occasionally appear as subjects in his large paintings—so lively that they seem to pop out and shake the hand of the viewer.

A walk through his Manhattan Soho studio reveals a complex man – a space filled with a lifetime of objects from his journeys placed among his experiments with colors, techniques and various materials from canvas to wood and more. His creativity is evident in all he does – even as he draws little whimsical designs on envelopes containing letters to friends and family.

“I came up with a word to describe what I do – abstract figuration. These are things from my memory, my imagination – a floating world.”

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