Just In: Iconic Chevron Painting by Billy Al Bengston

October 28, 2014

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

John (1966), Billy Al Bengston, Modern Art & Design Auction, March 1, 2015

Los Angeles artist Billy Al Bengston’s paintings are the visual equivalent of a waxed surfboard fresh from the ocean, beaded with water; or a motorcycle roaring out of the shop, freshly detailed and shining.  The surfer-biker-artist has said of his artistic mode: “My breakthrough came from the practical aspect of dealing with motorcycles. I’ve always been a technique nut. I’ve always believed in materials. [Motorcycles] don’t need as much maintenance as an oil painting.” Los Angeles Modern Auctions is pleased to announce the inclusion of John (1966), an early polyurethane and lacquer on aluminum work from Ferus Gallery and “Cool School” artist Billy Al Bengston, in the upcoming March 1, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction.

John, named after John Wayne, is from the Canto Indento series, in which the traditional medium of oil on canvas is abandoned in favor of thin sheets of aluminum, which are hammered, bent, or crumpled, then blocked out with masking tape and spray lacquered to create areas of color and the artist’s repeating shapes and emblems. In John, glossy layers of automobile lacquer are sprayed across the torqued aluminum sheet in ranging silhouettes of color. A fuzzy orange outline glows around a lapping pool of green. At the center, two concentric blue circles enclose Bengston’s signature chevron emblem. The deep influence of the custom car and motorcycle culture of the period is clear, nevertheless, John is a timeless representative of the artist and his technique. Bengston had no need to sign his work, for his oft-appearing symbols, including the chevron, as well as his irises and hearts, were his signature.


John (1966) on display in the Frank Gehry designed exhibition, “Billy Al Bengston,”
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968
Photograph Courtesy of Billy Al Bengston Laboratory

Bengston’s path to his now iconic aesthetic was eventful, as he found himself getting booted out of not one, but two different art schools. His initial art education began with a one year stint at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied painting with Bay area abstract expressionist and color field painter Richard Diebenkorn, as well as undertaking training in ceramics. Perhaps a bit overzealously, Bengston used up the entire semester’s supply of clay in two days and was asked to leave. The young artist then moved on to Otis Art Institute to study ceramics with Peter Voulkos alongside colleague and close friend Ken Price, until he was kicked out of school yet again. Bengston eventually opted for painting over ceramics, though he gave up oil painting around 1959 because, “the fancy brushes, fancy canvas, fancy this, fancy that—all materials made by somebody else,” were off-putting to him.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Label verso, John (1966), Billy Al Bengston, Modern Art & Design Auction, March 1, 2015

Bengston, who supported himself financially in the 1960s with his other career in professional motorcycle racing, carved out a niche in the art world with his innovative use of metals and spray lacquer; an obsession with surface and finish; and an interest in reappearing motifs and symbols. Speaking of the influences that molded his body of work, the artist has said: “My earlier work took off from things I saw in the street: cars, signs…man-made things that we see in harsh California light. And Los Angeles, of course, was and is a car culture… So I used car and sign-painting materials and colors the way an artist would any other kind of color.”

Monte, James. Billy. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968. Print.
“Billy Al Bengston.” Pacific Standard Time. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010-11. Web. 10 Oct 2014.
“Billy Al Bengston – On His Art.” Departures: Venice. Video. Web. 16 Oct 2014.

Lot Information:

Billy Al Bengston
Polyurethane, lacquer on aluminum
Together with exhibition catalogue
34″ x 31″
Provenance: Sterling Holloway, Laguna Beach, California; Private Collection, Los Angeles (acquired directly from the above)
Exhibited: “Billy Al Bengston,” traveling exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, November 26, 1968 – January 12, 1969
Illustrated: Monte, James. Billy. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968. #33, np.
Estimate: $20,000 – 30,000

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