Fall Art Show
56 Main Street, Third Floor
November 11-12, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
When Ben Georgia moved his art studio to a century-old building in downtown West Orange, the landlord told them that no one had rented the space since the Central Dress Company was there in the 1940s.
“It was a sweatshop,” said his wife Hilary Garrett, pointing out the holes in the floor where sewing machines used to be bolted in place. “The machines were all facing the wall so that you could only talk to the person next to you.”
That was in 1986. Today, the art studio has a much different work atmosphere. It is a calming sanctuary that radiates with the quiet meditations of Georgia’s art.
Garrett, who helps run the everyday business at the studio, is telling me about a painting that was recently sold to a collector in Munich and she has an uncanny ability to know where everything in the studio is located. The rows of canvases are proof of the artist’s prolificness that hasn’t slowed down at age 82.
“It cost $2,200 just to ship it there,” said Garrett, showing me a photograph of the recently sold painting called “Black and Blue.”
With few shapes and a minimal palette of moody colors, the painting she shows me seems to channel a jazz tune in a smoky nightclub. Georgia is an abstract expressionist, using techniques mastered by Hans Hoffman in which certain colors appear in the foreground while other hues fade to the back. The interplay creates dimension and a musical quality.
“I’ve had many people say that when they get up in the morning and look at a painting by Ben, they feel better about life,” Garrett said. “You’re aware of the color as you walk past them — they do something.”
This weekend, Georgia will be having an art show and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. The restorative quality of his paintings are so vital given the ominous state of the world. “The world is such an awful place nowadays, but his art makes you feel a bit better,” Garrett said.
One painting that epitomizes Georgia’s outlook on life and art is “Freefall,” depicting a series of cubes that appear to be dancing on the canvas. The inspiration came to him while he was bedridden. Wanting to occupy himself, he tossed a tissue box into the air and painted what he saw.
Anecdotes like these — and Garrett has many — capture Georgia’s near-compulsive need to paint daily as well as his ability to find the silver lining in a situation. During the pandemic, he began a series of still-life watercolors of orchids, bougainvillea, and frangipane while staying at their summer home where they were quarantined. “Everyday he would take some flowers out of the garden and make a watercolor,” Garrett said. “He thought it would cheer people up.”
When I caught up with Georgia a few days later, I learned that his glass-half-full way of seeing the world is rooted in hardship. Born in 1941, one of five children, Georgia came from a poor family who lived in a crowded, cold-water flat in Jersey City. His mother battled with depression.
Fortunately, his working-class parents were supportive of his wish to be an artist and the proximity to Manhattan meant he had the best museums in the world at his fingertips. He still remembers seeing Charles Demuth’s “Figure Five in Gold” at the Met.
In 1994, a near fatal car accident further shaped his attitude toward life. “The first thing he did was pick up his arms and try to move his hands,” said Garrett who witnessed the event. “He was in this awful accident and all he cared about was his hands.”
As a twentysomething student, Georgia learned to paint under artist Theodoros Stamos — the famed abstract expressionist who ran in the same circle as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock — first at Columbia University, then the Arts Students League of New York. The encounter left a lasting impression on him, teaching him that art is not merely for decorating the walls of home — it’s a search for meaning.
Georgia never stopped being a student of art, whether voraciously reading art history books about the Renaissance or attending shows like Art Basel or the Armory. He recalls meeting artist Alice Neel at Graham Greene’s gallery — a few decades before her retrospective at the Met — who warned him to ignore fads in the art world. “She didn’t go along with all the isms that are out there,” Georgia said.
“The galleries are always pushing something because it happens to be fashionable,” Georgia continued. “Whether art is commercial or not, whether anybody likes it or not, that’s not the important thing — what’s important is that you believe it’s important.”
The 1990s was a big decade in his career when a German-owned gallery in Nantucket, Art Kabinet, began selling his paintings. Around that same time, Andre Zarre, a well-known gallerist in Chelsea, also became a champion of his art. Suddenly, the son of a dock worker was rubbing shoulders with some of the wealthiest people in the world.
“I met Jack Welsh at his house in Nantucket and he bought nine paintings,” Georgia said. “He told me that when he hired someone, he didn’t care what school they went to, only the person’s history and what they were able to achieve.”