PRINT May 1967

Billy Al Bengston’s “Dentos”

BILLY AL BENGSTON’S RECENT WORK introduces three fresh conditions which alter almost completely the familiar view. These modifications are the physical manipulation of the support, the brittle aluminum surface and new color, and the tilting of the painted configurations.

An unmounted series of paintings dating from 1965 first introduce a unique variation of the surface. The grounds are a variety of veneers and synthetic board he calls “woodies.” The rippling grain pattern holds as a unified field or background, and the painted portions, whether solid or spray blended, suggest a decal applied to the surface. It is the artist’s intention to laminate the woodies flush to a larger wall area of the same material, thus integrating the new work into an environment. His previous work had always appeared separate and singular, of easel proportions or cabinet size with an emphasis on a hard panel aspect. Dissatisfaction with the thick mounted canvas or masonite panel in a framed boundary required rethinking of the manner of presentation. This predicated the most recent shift to sheet aluminum in 1966.

A parallel to the visual texture of wood grain is found in his manipulation of the metal, primarily by beating it with various blunt instruments and a ball-peen hammer. This action creates a fluttering repoussè of bends and bucklings, tool marks and even tears in the surface. The aim is an overall agitation achieved through automatism. These acts of chance point up his links with Abstract Expressionism. It may be useful to recall that his first public presentation was in the 1957 Los Angeles County Museum ’s annual Vicinity exhibition with an amazingly large, brightly-hued, energetically brushed painting in the New York-San Francisco mode. In the following three years, preceding and during travels in Europe, he produced about a dozen small collages of painted, pierced, and torn paper, clear tape, and, more remarkably for our purposes, cellophane. These, like the new aluminum panels,operate between the illusion of two dimensions and the actuality of three. The collages involve the same casual tenderness and reflective delicacy, and are completely unpretentious. One suspects similar ideas are again operating.

Bengston resists planning or arranging the crumpled folds, for he obviously wishes to avoid the fuller dimensional implications of sculptural relief making. The crushed effect extends to the edges of the paintings and, when hung, this yields a play of space between the work and the wall and an irregular cast shadow. The frame is eliminated entirely. The paintings are thus viewed as suspended, fragile, leaflike objects, and this quality may be either denied or rein forced by the color. In view of the precision involved in the technique of masking and spraying it is completely in character that he has continued to work on surfaces with tooth (canvas or the reverse side of masonite) or grain (illusion in veneer) and the dented metal is the most extreme example. And it is also typical that the surface should not be exploited for accidental textures achieved through a raking application of paint. The color is always imposed up on the surface; patterns and textures play an inevitable part as consciously applied, non-extraneous elements.

A first response to the dented aluminum works is confusion at not being able to examine the painting clearly enough because of some odd interference. Next comes a reading of the fluctuating pattern as an unfortunate accident. Responding to the tool marks one is misled into recreating the action of violent damage. Finally the eye accommodates the surface to the entire visual statement. Cooperating with the original and provocative color and the final clear and reflective coating, the denting transforms the paintings into floating foil tissues of remarkable delicacy. The broken reflective surface introduces the play of shapes of light and shadow and color of light and color of the environment, and, as the viewer moves past them, the patterns change, revealing portions previously obscured by the light. Color, too, changes enormously. The crushing contradicts the precision of the painted designs, causing them to be highly unstable and elusive.

Bengston’s technique of spray application of lacquer has always appeared fresh, unique, and superb in its variety and complexity. The spray gun, directing a pressurized application of paint, has long been regarded as a commercial tool yielding only flat, even layers; and the smaller, more intimate and precise airbrush is familiar primarily to photo retouchers and mechanically inclined commercial craftsmen. His spray technique is based on an intense involvement from about 1956–57 in the painting and decorative elaboration of automobiles, particularly motorcycles. Pioneering in the translation of this technique to canvas he began with pressurized cans, later moving to professional equipment. While numerous artists have since utilized spray to achieve an even color quality, Bengston, with his pioneering efforts has achieved mastery of a full range of densities, from the barest dusting to a half tone-like gauze, and semi-opaque glazed blendings of wet into wet to fully saturated opaque layers. He is able to execute a marvelous sequence of transitions and suspensions. One is reminded of the ancient Western tradition, moribund for a century, of endless gradations of oil and varnish fully exploited by the primitive Flemish and cinquecento Florentines.

The spraying process is almost as involved and pain staking, for the areas are treated one at a time, the remainder covered and masked off. This means there is no immediate feedback; adjustments of the composition are made when the completed surrounding sections are unmasked. Still, the paintings are developed part to part from a general idea or sketch. Taking into account the waiting period for adequate drying time before remasking, one expects that several paintings would be in progress at any one time, and for the smaller works this is true. The larger ones are produced one at a time, for they require involved designing of the stencils and occupy the artist’s complete attention. The drying time is controlled, as with oils, by the thickness of the deposit (two weeks for primer coats to an hour for a thin lacquer) and by the weather, as with water based paints (rapid drying when warm, longer when cool).

In the newest works the entire configuration is submerged in a cohesive color atmosphere. In contrast to the satiny, hand-rubbed polished finish on the masonite panels, the new final coat is a clear polyurethane (without polishing), achieving an extreme reflectiveness.

There are enough points of reference to elicit mention of a relationship with such a non-painterly tradition as Byzantine mosaics. The Byzantine style blended a rigid Classicism with Eastern opulence, favored hermetic closure of compositions, and extended variants of halations about repeated motifs. The mosaic surface is constructed of bits of material (obviously tesserae rather than an aerated liquid), which are filled in one section at a time, each blended or flat and outlined. These, along with a predilection for metallics, are all points of comparison. One is also reminded of the infinite patience and high level of craftsmanship of medieval European manuscript illumination and Asian miniature painting. Despite differences in size and intention there are similarities in the constant maintenance of sharp focus through the range of solidly layered pigment handling; i.e., from purely flat, to modeled, extreme decorative involvement and the detailed recreation of textures.

Bengston’s color choices have alway been particular and idiomatic, highly dramatic and rarefied. Luminous and gaseous, his color carried overtones of 1940s jukebox deco ration and neon tubing, entirely artificial. A major reference was West Coast auto and cycle painting—a funky, masculine, industrial folk art—with its range of candy sweet iridescents, metallic undercoatings, pin striping and blended flame patterns. Secondaries and tertiaries such as brilliant aqua, chartreuse, yellow oranges, bubble-gum roses and chemical violets have fully occupied his attention since the early ’60s, along with the more rarely encountered extreme value statements in white and black. The effect was always a combination of bold drama and high sophistication, hard and hip, tough and luscious. Now the colors are more precious, indulgent, middle key, blended, and elusive. Comm on color terminology, at best in accurate, is totally inadequate to deal with these refined mixtures. In the darker registers taupe, puce, and mauve perhaps convey the fin de siècle atmosphere they evoke.

A set of ten small untitled works share a preponderance of pearlescent lavenders through peach, and additional greys and ochres so close in value that the diffused surface seems to resemble only bruised and organic pulp. Of the larger paintings (four feet square), the first, Holy Smoke, 1966, is especially conducive to the play of light, being so pale in coloration; light grey, pink, silver, and gold. Its design is radically diagonal and active, causing the eye to skim frantically across the liquid surface. Andrew is tougher and more matter of fact. Here the edge border of silver and green stripes contests with a similar motif at the center in silver and dark purple. These bold patterns compete across an immense area of soft olive drab.

The configurations consist of a recognizable silhouette enshrined by a geometric package of patternings. The chevrons or sergeant stripes have, through repeated use since June, 1960, become the artist’s signature, located at the dead center, at the eye of a visual storm, of a heraldic mandala. The chevron, while obviously (to many, annoyingly) referential, is more important as a ritual stabilizing core, a striking, optically ambiguous and fluctuating illusion. While he does not necessarily begin with the chevron, and though it occupies this paramount, compositionally generative position, it always manages, however modestly, to get worked in. It is enframed and encircled by some combination of ovals, squares, rectangles, diamonds, quatrefoils, parallelograms, lines, rings, circles, biomorphic chains, rays, blended bands, or striped patterns. These framing devices issue like pressure waves and confirm the shape of the form at (a vertical rectangle or a square). Their extravagant variety serves the end of intense optical pulsation. Whereas these elements had previously been consistently strict and measured, arrayed in bilateral symmetry, since the woodies of 1965 the orientation has shifted between two and seven degrees clockwise off the vertical axis. This tipping, accompanied by the manipulated plane and rare color, adds to the eccentric motion of the recent work.

Perversely reinforcing his independence from depersonalizing currents and categorization, free of main stream influences, and unconcerned with academic conventions, Bengston continues to set up a crowded field of pictorial tensions. His intense dichotomies command viewer involvement on numerous contradictory levels. Yet his paintings are coherent and conclusive. The works of the early ’60s adventurously and arrogantly assaulted the spectator; the recently in creased romantic painterliness interferes with a clear viewing. Both invite the eye to feel the surface, trap it in a labyrinth of dazzling moves, and both exhaust by an aggressive displacement of focus. They are rich and loaded emblems dedicated to the assertion of a unique personality.

Fidel A. Danieli



*“Canto lndentos.”