Billy Al Bengston, a painter whose unclassifiable semi-abstractions made him a central figure in the postwar Los Angeles art scene, died Saturday at age 88 of natural causes at his home in Venice, Calif. A representative from his gallery, Various Small Fires, confirmed his death.
Last year, CBS News reported that Bengston had “a moderate case of dementia”.
Bengston rose to fame in Los Angeles in the 1960s when he painted abstract works of commercial logos and automotive parts. The alternate compositions of his paintings and their non-traditional processes caused some critics to lump Bengston into the Finish Fetish movement, whose practitioners used to create slick, slick works of art.
Some have also claimed Bengston as an artist adjacent to the Pop art movement as some series of paintings allude to consumer goods.
At the time, Bengston exhibited at the famed Ferus Gallery, known for its offbeat and influential exhibitions. Founded in 1957 by Walter Hopps, his wife Shirley and artist Edward Kienholz, the gallery has also shown Bengston’s friends Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha.
By emphasizing motorcycle culture, Bengston’s art was seen as emblematic of a certain milieu. “A quality of the expansiveness of the physical environment as well as some of the fragile sheen and shine of the aggressively man-made environment of Los Angeles is intensely condensed in his work,” said the reviewer. John Coplans. written in art forum in 1965. “This is perhaps one of the factors that makes it most difficult for him to relate to current art, because he does not seek the authority of his art anywhere else – a condition quite rare in the contemporary American painting at the present time.”
Bengston was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1934. His father was a tailor and his mother was a musician. The family had first been drawn to California when her mother got a job at an opera house in San Francisco. They eventually returned to Kansas, then moved to California again, this time to Los Angeles.
He was drawn to art when he attended Manual Arts High School, a vocational school whose alumni included Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. He had been intrigued by the prospect of seeing nude models in his art classes. “I was pretty excited about it, until it happened,” he said. Told Hyperallergic. “They were some of the ugliest people you’ve ever seen.”
After high school what is it art forum once called a “series of misadventures in higher education”. He went to college for three weeks, then got a job at a department store. He took up surfing, which became a lifelong passion, and met artist Ken Price, who would become an important sculptor and friend of Bengston. They both end up studying with Peter Voulkos, whose ceramics are acclaimed.
Bengston went to Los Angeles City College for two years, then to California College of Arts and Crafts after that. In the latter school, he studied with Richard Diebenkorn and Saburo Hasegawa.
Bengston’s paintings from the early 1960s often feature a single object or image at their center surrounded by abstraction. The paintings in the “BSA Motorcycle” series depict carburettors, the BSA logo and exhaust pipes amid off-white color fields. Both extremely strange and strangely striking, these works build on the innovations of Jasper Johns, who less than a decade earlier had imported the everyday – American flags, maps of the United States – into painting. Bengston had encountered Johns’ work in 1958, the year Johns was exhibited in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The “Valentine” series, named because it debuted in Ferus on Valentine’s Day, has hearts at its center, and the “Chevron” series has curved and arched shapes that are set on backs. – toxic color plans. This latter series appeared in New York at the Martha Jackson Gallery and won Bengston fame.
By the mid-1960s, Bengston had begun to incorporate lacquer and enamel, which he used to make his surfaces shiny, even somewhat reflective. This made the paintings look like motorcycles themselves, an effect he emphasized by denting some of his paintings with a hammer.
In 1968 Bengston had a Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective – one of two there would be during his career. (The 1968 one was designed by then-debuting architect Frank Gehry.) By the time of Bengston’s next, in 1988, the Los Angeles Times reported that he was the wealthiest artist in Venice, California.
“I’m ready to leave show biz”, Bengston say it Time at the time. However, he did not stop working. Many of his later works will be variations on themes set in the 1960s.
In 2011, for example, for a show at Palazzo Dagli Scrigni in Venice tied to that year’s Biennale, Bengston painted gondolas with colors alluding to Italian motorcycle brands. The project, he said, was a tribute to motorcycle racing in the MotoGP division.
At the time of his death, Bengston was married to Wendy Al Bengston. He had also had a residence in Honolulu.
Bengston’s art has since been historicized, appearing in exhibitions such as “Crosscurrents in LA, Paintings and Sculpture 1950-1970,” which opened in 2011 at the Getty Center as part of the first Pacific Standard Time initiative. However, he always spoke about his work in clear terms.
“When I painted these motorcycle paintings, I pissed people off beyond belief,” he said. Hyperallergic, talking about what is now one of his most beloved series. ” I do not know why. These are just tables. You don’t have to watch them. Whenever I’m in trouble I quote Ken [Price]. He said, ‘The only thing you have to do to make people outraged is anything.’”