PRINT Summer 1965

Billy Al Bengston

Born Dodge City, Kansas, 1934.
Attended Los Angeles City College, 1953–54; Los Angeles State College, 1954–55; California College Of Arts And Crafts, Oakland, 1955–56.
Taught at Chouinard Art Institute, 1961, and University of California, Los Angeles, 1962.
Lives In Venice, California.

IN WESTERN ART, PURELY PAINTERLY QUALITIES, the handling of the media, can often be distinctly separated from composition, or the organization of form. In some cases, differences in paint application can become the distinguishing features of the style, as for example, the recognizably smooth, highly polished and mirror-like surface of Netherlandish painting compared to the blurred, broken and looser brush application of the Venetians. A recognizable, regional sense of identity is manifested in surface qualities alone, a regional quality, more over, which carries a geographical identity without any of the current negative connotations of provincialism. A good deal of Billy Al Bengston’s attractiveness derives directly from the manner in which qualities as abstract as surface handling communicate a specific and buoyant sense of geographical identity.

Paint handling can also become identical with the formulation of imagery. In Pollock’s method of dripping commercial lacquers onto raw canvas, the handling of the media itself is the critical factor in creating the shape and overall organization of the image. Similarly, many of the innovations which Bengston has introduced in order to achieve a very special kind of surface quality in his art have, perforce, helped to dictate the nature of his imagery. To effect a surface which will create a sense of geographical identity certain devices are employed which, in turn, help to determine the nature of his imagery.

Bengston’s introduction of spray techniques onto canvas (or hard-surfaced materials like masonite) extended the possibilities of surface-handling considerably. Even more interesting, however, are the complexities he has introduced into the surface variability of encrusted or polished paint and surfaces with an illusionary depth. He has not only pioneered this interchangeability of surfaces—the reflective and the absorptive—but he has taken it quite beyond the bounds of what would seem to be the possible limits. He constantly asserts a positive physicality and vibrancy of surface, concretized in substance by his warm, sensuous hand-polished finish.

At the same time, his technical procedures released a whole range of coloration which is totally dissimilar to the use of stain, conventional color balance, or the optical type of color effects currently employed in much American painting. It would not be too much to say that by the early sixties Bengston had probably extended the notion of a complex synthetic order of color far in advance of anyone else working at the time. An extraordinarily diverse, richly sensuous range of coloration remains an outstanding characteristic of his art.

Bengston’s true development probably began with a viewing of the flags and targets of Jasper Johns in about 1958. Though his work now shows little evidence of this contact, the immediate result was to release his work from a burden of ancestry that had inhibited his development, and he carried away with him a germinal idea: the employment of a neutral device which would provide his work with a measure of objectivity. He began by employing a heart, later an iris and still later a sergeant’s chevron at the center of his paintings. Using them flatly and emblematically, Bengston managed to disengage these recognizable signs from their normal associations. Thus removed, they served, first, to distinguish his work from the sentimental primitivism and primordial sign-making then prevalent in West Coast art; second, as abstract elements around which the paintings were organized; third, as unitary devices linking a series of paintings and finally, as signature. Placing his emotionally neutral but visually hard and sharp motif centrally, Bengston proceeded to split his surface with a complex bilateral symmetry, combining this with an extensive but quite arbitrary system of repetitively halving and quartering his structure. Whatever the quantity of fragmentation, this basic structure served to maintain the emblematic overtones within a centrifugal axis. The outward-flying organization of many paintings in the chevron series is held intact by a similar, but circular, organization.

Although his works look precisely made, Bengston is not a perfectionist; likewise, despite a highly formal appearance, he is not a formalist. He is indeed totally uncommitted to any traditional view of technique, form or style. He avoids, or sidesteps, the painterly procedures which commonly identify the sophisticated edge of various important sectors of current American painting, preferring instead to communicate a sense of hedonistic abandon to the values of time (now, today) and place (West Coast, Los Angeles) which are so compellingly reflected in his work. A quality of the expansiveness of the physical environment as well as some of the brittle gloss and gaudiness of the aggressively manmade Los Angeles environment is acutely condensed in his work. This, perhaps, is one of the factors that makes placing him in some relation to current art most difficult, for he looks nowhere else for the authority of his art—a condition somewhat rare in contemporary American painting at the moment.

John Coplans