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Billy Al Bengston in Los Angeles in 1981 Photo:George Rose/Los Angeles Times

Billy Al Bengston's Mechanical Perfection


by Robert Stalker

Billy Al Bengston, Lester, 1961, oil, polymer and lacquer on Masonite 48 x 46 1/2 inches,

Courtesy of the artist studio and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul

Painter Billy Al Bengston, a central figure of West Coast art of the sixties, passed away in his Venice home this last October at the age of 88, after having lived with dementia for several years. (A Silver Alert had been sounded in Los Angeles during the pandemic when the artist went briefly missing.) While Bengston continued to paint and exhibit his work well into the twenty-first century, at the time of his passing his name was not exactly on everyone’s lips. A rockstar of L.A.’s “Cool School” of the late fifties and sixties, Bengston made his mark by incorporating into his painting the techniques and materials of Southern California car customizers to produce delicate, yet hard-edge, high gloss paintings that relied on enigmatic “found” imagery such as irises, sergeant’s stripes, and valentines. His passing gives us an opportunity to revisit that early work; its provocative intermingling of the sensuous and the everyday still packs a punch, as we take stock of how his later work continues his explorations of the interactions of light and space.

Born in Dodge City, Kansas in 1934, Bengston moved to California with his family in 1948. He studied painting under Bay Area luminary Richard Diebenkorn at the California College of the Arts in Oakland before returning to L.A. in 1956 to study at the Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). In the the mid to late fifties, Los Angeles was something of a cultural backwater—“Omaha with a beach,” as one critic put it. It was the West Coast ceramics movement that first put L.A. on the map as a viable art city, and Bengston was an early acolyte of Peter Voulkos, one of the movement’s leaders. The blend of craft and fine art that characterized West Coast ceramics sculpture, its innovative sculptural techniques and especially its attention to surface, seems to have indelibly marked Bengston’s work, finding groundbreaking expression in the canvases he began to produce through the late ‘fifties and sixties as a central figure of the Finish Fetish artists associated with L.A.’s now legendary Ferus Gallery.


Installation view, Billy Al Bengston, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968 Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Courtesy of the artist studio and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul

Clockwise from top left: artists  Al Bengston, Blum, Moses and Altoon

Outside Ferus Gallery, LA, 1959 William Claxton/ Demont Photo Management

Opening its doors on March 13, 1957, the Ferus Gallery (1957-1968) fostered a very particular aesthetic that favored a clean, minimalist approach to artmaking. Incorporating the materials and techniques associated with California car customizers such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, Bengston developed in these years a kind of vernacular post-painterly abstraction. With canvases that combined lush painterly technique with a deadpan approach to subject matter, his painting epitomized Ferus’s hard-edge, pop-minimalist aesthetic.

Stainless Bob Steel (1960), enamel on Masonite, announces many of the concerns that would preoccupy Bengston throughout the sixties. First, the title of the piece, punning on the name of Bob Steel, former star of B-movie Westerns, and the industrial material of stainless steel, suggests the wit and playfulness of Bengston’s approach. The image at the center of the painting, Bengston’s trademark chevron or sergeant’s stripes, suggests Bengston’s penchant for including in his work found imagery, incorporating what Jasper Johns, in reference to his own paintings of flags and targets (which clearly influenced Bengston) called “things the mind already knows.” But, as Bengston has made clear, his interest was not just in the pop imagery and techniques for their own sake, but part of a deeper concern with the interactions of color, light, and space. As he has said, his work at this time “took off from things I saw in the street: cars, signs, etc.—man-made things that we see in the harsh California light . . . I use car- and sign-painting materials the way an artist would use any other kind of color.”    

1965, Tubesteak, 37x 28in., lacquer on formica.jpg

Billy Al Bengston, Tubesteak,1965, lacquer on formica, 37x 28 inches, 

Courtesy of the artist studio and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul.

With paintings such as Buster (1962) and Tubesteak (1965), Bengston began using a spray gun to apply multiple coats of oil paint, polymer, and lacquer on supports such as Masonite and Formica, creating a jewel-like finish. In a series of paintings called Dentos, Bengston would hammer, puncture, warp, dent, and otherwise deform aluminum on which he would meticulously spray-paint multiple coats—as many as fifty—of lacquer and polyurethane, creating a marvelous tension between the violence done to the support and the immaculate handling of the glossy surface. The multiple layers of paint, combined with matter-of-fact floating emblems of chevrons, irises, and hearts, create a seductive sense of depth and ambiguity.


Over the next several decades, Bengston remained preoccupied with the relation of light, space, and perception, even as that work revealed what Karen Tsujimoto identified as a deep allegiance to “decorative pictorial values.” The mid-seventies found him drawing on his experience as a scuba diver off the coast of Santa Catalina to explore the representation of light through water and to bring into his painting representational imagery inspired by the flora around his Honolulu studio in works such as El Limona Draculas (1974), a painting Peter Plagens called in a contemporary review the “seminal piece” of Bengston’s work.

Billy Al Bengston, Buster,1962. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase,

Dedicated in 2002 in honor of Thomas S. Tibbs (1917-2002),

Director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art from 1968 to 1972 © Billy Al Bengston

Courtesy of the artist studio and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul

Comprised of three hinged panels of acrylic on canvas, El Limona Draculas, integrates Bengston’s now-familiar motif of the iis or Dracula (as he called it) into all three panels. The left panel is divided by a thick, bright yellow bar of paint running horizontally across the canvas. Above the yellow bar rests a boxlike field of olive and ochre swirls and stains of paint. A light blue rectangle runs down the left side, overlaying the yellow bar and extending into the field below, a large, deep red and orange panel with a muddy, greenish iris toward the bottom. The paint in the lower two-thirds of the canvas is watery, oozy. Dots of paint are sprinkled against the color field, with a large, dark band at the bottom. The center panel of the piece is dominated by a dull yellow rectangle on the right with a similarly colored iris in partial view from the right against a darker, watery background with splashes of yellow paint. A band of orange, pinkish resin with olive streaks runs along the left and bottom. The right-hand panel places a green iris in the left corner of an orange and yellow section. White splotches in the top corner surround a leaf of an iris. Yellow and orange rectangles mingle and overlap.

Billy Al Bengston polishing his work, Courtesy of the artist studio and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul.

The hinged panels of El Limona Draculas are part of Bengston’s experiments with panels, screens, and suspended canvases, sometimes as large as 16 feet. A painter who once mounted an exhibit lit entirely by candlelight and collaborated with architect Frank Gehry to transform the space of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for his 1968 retrospective, Bengston remained acutely sensitive to the way that light interacts with environment. These mid-career paintings are alluring, for sure, lovely in their way, carrying Bengston’s fascination with light and perception into highly abstracted representational imagery.

Billy Al Bengston, Y Tu Pelo Tambien, 2001 Billy Al Bengston Y Tu Pelo Tambien, 2001 Acryl

Billy Al Bengston,Y Tu Pelo Tambien, 2001, Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 60 inches, Courtesy of the artist studio and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul.

Bengston continued to paint and exhibit well into the new millennium. Some of that later work, less busy and kitschy than the work of the 80s and 90s, recaptures a bit of the ambiguity and inscrutability of the groundbreaking proto-pop works of the late 50s and 60s. Y Tu Pelo Tambien (2001), for example, is a rectangular, 30” x 60” canvas. In the center, a large white dot hovers above a white column, looking almost like an upside-down exclamation point. The lateral, horizontal orientation of the canvas invites us to read it as a seascape, with the large dot as the moon reflecting a beam of light below. The loving attention to technical precision that had long been a trademark remains, the surfaces of these late paintings luxuriating in what Dali called, “the impeccable finish of mechanical perfection.”

A splashy, unpredictable figure of L.A.’s art scene, Bengston was pivotal in moving painting away from what fellow Ferus Gallery artist Craig Kaufman once called “messy fifties painting.” In a career spanning over half a century, Bengston produced a remarkably varied body of work that remained consistently grounded in the artist's preoccupation with the dynamics of light, space, and perception.

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Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.

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