Billy Al Bengston, painter who embodied the visual lexicon of Californian culture, dies aged 88
Billy Al Bengston, a painter known for his stylized, highly finished paintings that seem pulled from the visual lexicon of California culture, has died at the age of 88. He died at his longtime home in Venice, California. The artist was known to suffer from dementia, and last year CBS News reported while he was temporarily missing.
As much as he is known for his signature paintings – most recognizable abstract and lacquer works with compositions that feature centered patterns such as chevrons and hearts – he was also known in equal measure for his motorcycle racing, charm , his friendships that spanned the network of West Coast artists, and his key role in the development of the Los Angeles art scene.
Bengston was among the first artists to exhibit at the historic Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, placing him alongside Ken Price (with whom he surfed and shared a studio), Ed Ruscha (who referenced to Bengston as “a mentor”) and Edward Keinholz (who founded the gallery with Walter Hopps in 1957). Ferus, which was active until 1966, broke new ground in a number of ways, including being the first exhibition space to show Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s. cans of soup (which were priced at $100 a canvas at the time).
In the mid-1960s, Bengston used lacquer and enamel to achieve a look inspired by car and motorcycle finishes. This left many of his paintings with a shiny, almost reflective surface, leading some critics to list him among the California artists of Finish Fetish – a group known for the meticulously honed and stylized surfaces of their paintings and sculptures – where his cohort included Larry Bell, Dewain Valentine, Judy Chicago, Joe Goode, Robert Irwin, John McCracken and others. Many Finnish fetish artists were also associated with the Ferus Gallery. Bengston’s use of everyday motifs also led critics to count him among the pop artists of the time.
Bengston was born in Dodge City, Kansas in 1934. His family first arrived in Los Angeles in 1944 before returning to Kansas. In 1948, they moved again to Los Angeles, this time for good. Her father was a tailor and also ran a dry cleaning business and her mother was a musician. “She was a child prodigy. She could decipher and transpose on the piano by the age of four. She could play all the instruments in the orchestra and she could sing the best of all,” Bengston said. Hyperallergic in 2016.
He went to Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles, at the time the only high school in the country with an art department that used nude models. “I was pretty excited about it, until it happened,” he said in the same interview. “They were some of the ugliest people you’ve ever seen.”
He then attended Los Angeles City College for two years, studying “primarily ceramics and gymnastics” according to his website., followed by the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he studied with Richard Diebenkorn and Sabro Hasegawa, then the Los Angeles Art Institute, where he and Ken Price – who were already surfing buddies at the time – studied with ceramicist Peter Voulkos, although he did not graduate from either university. benston said art forum in 1968 that both Diebenkorn and Hasegawa were “influences on me, with Diebenkorn showing me how I could physically approach painting and Hasegawa by his example as a person and a thinker”. He has said elsewhere that he found in Voulkos an artist and mentor whose creative energies were rigorous and energizing in a way he had not yet encountered, but was ultimately deterred by the mastery of Voulkos ceramics, feeling he could never compare. This led to him eventually dropping out of both college and the medium, opting instead for painting.
“Billy Al is truly the founding member and leader of LA’s Cool School, and a founder of the LA art scene in the 1960s,” said collector and gallerist Adam Lindemann of Venus Over Manhattan. artnet News at a 2016 exhibition of Bengston’s work. “Motorcycle racer, surfer and inspired artist, he is one of the legendary heroic figures of the West Coast art scene.”
In 1958, he had his first exhibition at the Ferus gallery. “[I was] while browsing I ran into Ed Keinholz, who was at Echo Park at the time. He opened a gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. It was a small space inside the art theater. Then, with Walter Hopps, he opened the Ferus Gallery,” Bengston said.. “He would be in the back doing his thing. I’d take a six-pack from him and we’d hang out. He said, ‘Do you want to do a show here?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ Bengston went on to have five solo shows at Ferus.
In 1968 Bengston had a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma). A not-yet-established Frank Gehry designed the installation for the show. According to Los Angeles TimesGehry said that Bengston “welcomed me as an artist into his world, when I was just starting out. It was really important to me, I was invited into the family.
In a review of the 1968 Lacma show published in art forum, James Monte wrote, “Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Bengston’s work is that the images themselves refuse to become entirely abstract or entirely figurative. The difficulty, of course, lies in the mind of the viewer and not in the paintings themselves. A first viewing of a body of Bengston’s works is puzzling as one is amazed at the richness of their brushed, lacquered and polished surfaces,” adding: “Bengston removes a tendency towards the overt representation of malignity and instead distributes force carefully emotive, serializes it, sets restrictive limits on its use, and otherwise regulates it. By designing or manipulating the uses of psychic malevolence in art, juxtaposing it with humor or playfulness, the artist is able to domesticate or at least sublimate this virulence to a great extent.
A large number of museum exhibitions followed, including a 1988 survey also held at Lacma. Today, Bengston’s work can be found in museum collections across the United States and Europe. “His passing left a huge hole in me,” Wendy, his wife, told the Los Angeles Times. “But he belonged to everyone.”