LAMA BLOG

Moving Target: Billy Al Bengston

May 4, 2015

 

At the forefront of the late 1950s Los Angeles vanguard, Billy Al Bengston was a founding member of the “Cool School” art scene. In 1957 he took part in the Ferus Gallery’s opening group exhibition. A restless character, throughout his career he consistently and defiantly changed gears, both by challenging and confirming methods of the new, the traditional, and the outré. His art world niche is derived from his innovative use of metals and sprayed lacquer; an obsession with surface and finish; and a rotating repertoire of motifs and symbols. “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.”

Lot 117, Billy Al Bengston, Augies Riviera Dracula, 1972

Lot 117, Billy Al Bengston, Augies Riviera Dracula, 1972
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

A Californian since his family moved to Los Angeles in 1948, and now a longtime denizen of Venice Beach, Bengston’s college career zigzagged across the state’s top art institutions. After high school (in the manual arts) and junior college, he attended the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts), and Otis College of Art and Design (formerly the Los Angeles County Art Institute). In the latter he found a place for his creative energy and exploration in ceramic art–the ceramics department helmed by the iconoclast teacher Peter Voulkos. Here Bengston made mugs; he formed crudely shaped glazed stoneware and applied irregular, expressionist, and energetic designs in pigment, such as a cross, which would become a signature of his.

 

Lot 113, Billy Al Bengston, Mugs (2) c. 1957

Lot 113, Billy Al Bengston, Mugs (2), c. 1957
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

He next turned his attention to painting. Drawing inspiration from Northern California artists, such as Richard Diebenkorn and Jay DeFeo, and abstract expressionism, Bengston’s first paintings also incorporated natural elements. Some of these new works were premiered in his first solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1958. An Artnews review dubbed him “gifted” and said the young artist already had “a remarkable degree of authority . . . by the sheer liveliness of brush color and racing passages of pigment.”

 

Lot 115, Billy Al Bengston, Untitled (3), 1958

Lot 115, Billy Al Bengston, Untitled (3), 1958
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

After a European trip and a pivotal period of reassessment, the artist changed direction again. Working in sprayed lacquer or oil paint, he developed one of his trademark styles: a neutral composition with pragmatic shapes centered in the middle of a nearly square canvas. His symbolic imagery involved geometric patterns, checkerboards, or stripes, known as “chevrons.” (Lot 116 is an early example of  Bengston’s iconic chevron paintings.)

Lot 116 Billy Al Bengston Untitled Miniature 1962

Lot 116, Billy Al Bengston, Untitled Miniature, 1962
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

In 1969 Bengston started painting iris flower shaped silhouettes, and by 1971 he incorporated them exclusively as a motif. It was a move toward fluidity–away from stiff forms and hard-edge painting–to naturalistic images in acrylic, which he found more compatible with soft canvas. Since his friend artist Ken Price thought the silhouettes, with petals resembling wings in flight, looked like Count Dracula morphing into a bat, the motif thus was called a “dracula.” Bengston became influenced by travel and working outdoors in Colorado, Florida, the Caribbean, and Hawaii– the Dracula paintings have atmospheric, cloudy layered coloring and a “beachy” vibe.

Lot 117, Augies Riviera Dracula (1972) was exhibited in the 33rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in 1973. By that time Bengston had had solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1968), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1968), and the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1969.

Bengston was included in recent significant surveys: Los Angeles: 1955–1985 (2006) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Sinister Pop (2012–2013) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Want to know what this flamboyant artist is up to now? Visit his website (www.billyalbengston.com) and see his “Sorta Bio” to find that he advises us to both check in for updates, and the reverse, to do our own research, to find out more.

References:
“Billy Al Bengston: Artist: Pacific Standard Time.” blogs.getty.edu. Web.
Jules Langsner, “This Summer in Los Angeles,” Artnews, Summer 1958. 58. Print.
Tsujimoto, Karen, “Painting as a Visual Diary.” In Billy II: Billy Al Bengston: Paintings of Three Decades. San Francisco: Chronicle Books/Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston/The Oakland Museum. 1988. 17–29. Print.

Lot Information:

Lot 113
Billy Al Bengston
Mugs (2)
c. 1957
Studio
Partially glazed stoneware
Each inscribed “Moontang”
4.5″ x 4.5″ x 3″; 3.25″ x 4.5″ x 3.5″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist); Thence by descent
Literature: Monte, James. Billy. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968. N. pag. (for a example of stoneware with “cross” motif.)
Estimate: $2,000 – 3,000

Lot 114
Billy Al Bengston
Mugs (2)
c. 1957
Studio
Partially glazed stoneware
3.25″ x 5″ x 3″; 3.5″ x 5″ x 3″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist); Thence by descent
Estimate: $2,000 – 3,000

Lot 115
Billy Al Bengston
Untitled (3)
1958
Watercolor on paper
Two signed and dated in ink
Sheets each: 11″ x 8.5″; Frames each: 14.25″ x 12.25″
Provenance: Private Collection, United States (acquired directly from the artist); Thence by descent
Estimate: $6,000 – 9,000

Lot 116
Billy Al Bengston
Untitled Miniature
1962
Oil on wood panel in artist’s frame
Signed and dated “Bengston/1962″ frame verso
Panel: 5″ x 5″; Frame: 8.5″ x 8.5”
Provenance: Private Collection, United States (acquired directly from the artist); Thence by descent
Estimate: $15,000 – 20,000

Lot 117
Billy Al Bengston
Augies Riviera Dracula
1972
Acrylic on canvas
Initialed in pencil on wooden canvas stretcher “B.A.B.”; retains artist’s label verso
Canvas: 72″ x 72″; Frame: 73″ x 73″
Provenance: Private Collection, Santa Monica, California (gifted directly by the artist, 1972)
Exhibited: “33rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting,” Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., February 23-April 8, 1973
Estimate: $70,000 – 90,000

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