Billy Al Bengston, painter who channeled California Cool, dies at 88

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Billy Al Bengston, painter who channeled California Cool, dies at 88
Billy Al Bengston, Godzilla’s Saddle, 1962. Lacquer and oil on masonite, 72 x 72 in. Photo courtesy of Billy Al Bengston.

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Billy Al Bengston, a Kansas-born California painter who drew inspiration from the car and surf culture of midcentury Los Angeles, and was part of a 1960s movement, known as LA Cool School, that helped transform the city from an art-world afterthought into a hub of contemporary art, died Oct. 8 at his home in Venice, California. He was 88.

His wife, Wendy Al, confirmed the death, of unspecified cause.

A surfer, a motorcycle racer and briefly a Hollywood stuntman, Bengston found prominence in the late 1950s as part of a new wave of Southern California artists aligned with the pioneering Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood, founded by Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz.

Bengston, with his flamboyant attire and deadpan wit, was a central figure — along with the likes of Ed Ruscha, Kenneth Price, Robert Irwin and Larry Bell — in a swashbuckling art scene that drew international attention and became a cradle of 1960s counterculture in a city then dominated by commerce, Hollywood and conservative politics.

Ruscha once called him “a sort of Pied Piper” of that scene. “One moment he would be very serious, another moment he would be like a cartoon, a clown,” he said.

Bengston was known for his abstract, heavily lacquered paintings, sometimes on industrial surfaces like Masonite or dented aluminum sheets. Elegantly minimalist, they were also buoyant with the airiness and vibrant colors of the West. His early paintings, emerging in the pop art era, often featured images of motorcycles, sergeant-stripe chevrons and hearts.

During that period he aligned himself with the so-called Finish Fetish approach, adopting new resins, paints and application techniques — like spray painting, borrowed from the automotive industry — to create gleaming works that were ebullient reflections of the petroleum-fueled consumer culture that Southern California had come to epitomize.

“My soft stuff is a lot more serious than it looks, and my serious stuff is a lot more whimsical,” Bengston was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times before a retrospective of his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It takes nerve to be lighthearted. You know you’re going to get dinged for it.”

Even so, Bengston, a flinty contrarian with the soul of a prankster, never allowed himself to be pinned down by any particular style or movement. Forever experimenting with materials and techniques, he had an always evolving style, reflecting a changing array of influences, both artistic and environmental. He produced memorable watercolors in the 1970s after trips to Puerto Escondido, Mexico. After traveling to Oahu, Hawaii, to participate in a grueling rough-water swim, he began producing paintings reflecting the brilliant hues of the islands as well as the local flora and fauna.

“His work more frequently challenges taste than confirms it, and unequivocally declares the open-ended nature of the creative process,” Karen Tsujimoto, an art curator, wrote in a 1988 appraisal of his work.

It also challenged the perception that Los Angeles had nothing more to offer culturally than summer blockbusters. “We wanted to be the best; that was a necessity,” Bengston was quoted as saying in a 2020 interview with Artworks Magazine, in reference to his Los Angeles art crew. “None of us were going to paint like de Kooning — we just weren’t,” he said. “You don’t punch with the heavyweight champion. So you invent the new fight.”

Billy Al Bengston was born June 7, 1934, in Dodge City, Kansas, during the Dust Bowl years. He was the younger of two sons of Raymond and Sylvia (Elland) Bengston. His mother was a trained opera singer who sang in church choirs. His father was a former professional football player who owned a dry cleaning shop.

As a youth, Billy bounced between Kansas and California as his parents chased job opportunities. “It’s very hard to fit in looking like you do in Kansas if you’re in California, and vice versa,” he recalled in a 2010 video interview. “And both of them at that time liked to beat you up.”

Bengston, a muscular athlete like his father, was no pushover. While enrolled at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, he became an avid surfer and gymnast. He also developed a love of ceramics. The school had a thriving arts curriculum, including nude life drawing classes, the thought of which excited him. “I didn’t know that they were all going to look like mudslides,” he said.

After graduation, Bengston, a bon vivant who loved fast bikes and women, friends said, took a halfhearted stab at higher education with brief stops at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where he studied ceramics under Peter Voulkos, a master of that art.

Wearied by the craft overtones of the medium, Bengston shifted his sights to painting. He grew fascinated by abstract expressionists like Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning by reading It Is, an influential New York art publication, Tsujimoto wrote.

His own work, however, was less austere, invoking images from the natural world, like birds in flight. He was 24 when he had his first solo exhibition, in 1958, at the Ferus Gallery, drawing praise from Art News. His reputation spread nationally, particularly after a watershed solo show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1962.

A lifelong peacock who thought nothing of attending a black-tie art function wearing orange Hawaiian-print pants and a vintage couture jacket with pocket square (his high school nickname was “Rainbow”), Bengston knew how to make a statement with his gallery shows as well. For a 10-year retrospective of his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968, he enlisted Frank Gehry to design a corrugated entrance to the exhibition and commissioned a life-size wax figure of himself from the Hollywood Wax Museum.

For the 2011 Venice Biennale, New York gallerist Tim Nye asked Bengston to promote an exhibition of Los Angeles artists called “Venice in Venice.” Bengston drew on his motor sports roots in transforming two traditional black Venetian gondolas into racing bikes of sorts, with pulse-quickening paint jobs in the signature red and yellow of Ducati motorcycles.

“He loved the irony of the fact that Ducatis are synonymous with speed and gondolas are the slowest means of transportation,” Nye said in a phone interview.

For an exhibition of his own work, Nye said, Bengston insisted that it be lit only by candlelight, which rendered the paintings barely visible but highlighted the sheen and textures of his 1960s Dentos series, which were painted with a high-gloss finish on sheets of aluminum that he had whacked with a ball-peen hammer. “He was an enigma wrapped inside a paradox,” Nye said.

In addition to his wife, Wendy Al — born Kathryn Wendy Yuri Nakayama, she adopted the last name Al as a whimsical show of unity after they married in 1995 — Bengston is survived by a daughter, Blue T.I.C.A. Bengston (the initials represent the names of close friends), from a brief marriage in the 1990s; and a granddaughter.

His wife said that Bengston had lately been experiencing mild cognitive impairment, an early stage of dementia, but that he had remained strong.

“I gave him voice lessons for an early Christmas present, and he was crooning the day before he died,” she said. “The day before that, he was at his Pilates class.”

On a Saturday night marked by a brilliant moon, Al said, she and her husband were snuggling in bed watching television when he turned to her and said, “Something’s not good; this doesn’t feel right.” She moved to rub his back, but shortly afterward he said, “Wendy, this is something different.” And he was gone.

For all his success, Bengston always maintained a wry view of success, and of the commercialization of the art world in general, despite the fact that he had profited from it. “We used to really think that we were spiritual beings,” he once said of the Ferus artists in his typically unfiltered fashion. “Now it’s just a whorehouse.”

It was hard to say if he was disgusted or amused.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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