PRINT November 1968

Billy Al Bengston Retrospective in Los Angeles

BILLY AL BENGSTON’S CAREER BEGAN at Manual Arts High School, a vocational training school in Los Angeles, which included within its largely industrial arts curriculum an excellently conceived Fine Arts program. This unique program afforded students such as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, as well as Bengston, the opportunity to develop sophisticated skills within the secondary school system.

For Bengston, graduation from high school and enrollment in college in the fall of 1952 was the beginning of a series of misadventures with higher education. Dissatisfied with college, Bengston dropped out after a few weeks and found work as a displayman in Desmond’s Department Store in Los Angeles. In the spring of 1953, he left the store and worked throughout the summer season as a beach attendant. The opportunity to surf and swim and earn a living as well was irresistible for Bengston. An important friendship developed that summer between Bengston and the sculptor, Kenneth Price. These two young artists were to become friends and allies. Sharing a common interest in vanguard art, and working with Peter Voulkos, the sculptor-ceramicist, and a handful of others, they produced a virtual renaissance in Ceramic on the West Coast.

After two years attendance at Los Angeles City College from 1953 to 1955, Bengston enrolled in the fall of 1955 at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California. Two artists on the faculty, Richard Diebenkorn and Sabro Hasegawa, were, in Bengston’s words, “influences on me, with Diebenkorn showing me how I might physically approach painting and Hasegawa by his example as a person and thinker.”

The rewards were rich within the painting faculty and less than fruitful within the ceramics department. Bengston, with alarming alacrity, completed a semester’s course of proposed ceramics problems in two working days and proceeded with equal swiftness to deplete the department’s stock of clay body. His radical esthetic, in combination with his already well-developed skill, disrupted the pace of the department and taxed the faculty to such an extent that they asked him to leave. Bengston complied, and left both the ceramics department and the school one year after entering.

In another attempt at art school in the fall of 1956, this time at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, he studied with Peter Voulkos. Bengston had at last met a ceramics teacher whose enormous creative energy more than matched his own. The handful of students who met in Voulkos’s class in the basement of the Otis Art Institute, at peak periods turned out scores of pots in single sittings. Perhaps it was too good to last; Bengston was once again asked to leave school. With his final departure from art school Bengston gave up ceramics and concentrated on painting.

The carry-over from ceramics to painting should not be underestimated when one assesses Bengston’s art. He has mentioned in conversation the important influence the Raku and Temoku bowl forms had on the subsequent development of his own pottery and painting. The rich and spontaneous surface incident so highly prized in these two Japanese bowl forms are carried over into Bengston’s ceramics as well as his paintings. The small, richly textured painting Sunset at Sunset Plaza Drive, an early painting, contains the centered, equal-sided plus or cross marks seen on the earlier ceramic surfaces. The potential usefulness of these early “signature marks,” as the artist calls them, did in fact act as a root source for the Heart, Iris and Chevron series of paintings which were to follow in the ensuing eleven years.

It is worth noting that Bengston attended art school after the wave of World War II, G.I. Bill students had completed their training. The best of these students were committed to an expressionist ethos and were, at the onset of Bengston’s art school training, teachers engaged in revolutionizing art school curricula on the West Coast. Bengston was certainly in a position to ascertain the implications of the change and was himself a victim of the wrench between the conservative teaching element and the radical newcomers. Of the talented young artists to emerge in the middle to late 1950s on the West Coast, Bengston was the first to have produced, as a student totally committed to Abstract-Expressionism, a body of work wholly vanguard and yet seemingly outside the expressionist ethos. It is difficult to communicate the emotional and intellectual temper of the West Coast art world in the late fifties; suffice it to say that Bengston was labeled, on the one hand, a heretic by artists who were attempting to absorb the lessons of Abstract Expressionism, and was considered a freak, on the other, by the conservative art establishment in Southern California. His own thoughts in 1968 about his position as Peck’s Bad Boy to both conservative and radical camps eight years ago are revealing. “I believed in the lessons of the New York artists, particularly de Kooning. That’s where I came into the picture. What their paintings said and what they verbalized was a complete openness, so within that openness I began making my own paintings.” By “openness” Bengston had in mind a series of esthetic breakthroughs so eccentric-appearing to the eyes of the California art community that he apparently broke with rules yet to be formulated.

Bengston generously credits Craig Kauffman’s paintings of 1957 as offering a clue as to how he might proceed. Kauffman’s paintings at that time held a solution to the then prevalent all-over scattered stroking and troweling of impastoed oil pigment. The scattered forms of Still, Pollock, de Kooning, Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith were developing into a cliché among younger artists. Kauffman, although retaining the loose handling of the older artists, concentrated the intensity of execution in the center of the canvas and developed a large, loose biomorphic shape which hung with ease and little visual connection to the four sides of the canvas support. Bengston had applied strips of clay to vase, cup and bowl shapes which, when seen dead on, produced the same centered visual effect. The loose asymmetry of Kauffman’s pictures, which verged on symmetry by the very nature of their centeredness, provided Bengston with a way of proceeding to an even more radically symmetrical format.

In 1958 Bengston first saw the encaustic flags and targets painted in the mid-fifties by Jasper Johns. These works provided him with a further clue as to how a painting could be made and on what level avant-garde art could function outside of wholly loosened all-over abstract configuration.

In noting Bengston’s movement away from an increasingly vitiated expressionist tradition, it is evident that, as with Craig Kauffman, Edward Kienholz, Kenneth Price and other Southern California artists, a general shift to new materials such as lacquers, epoxies and vacuum-formed plastics helped clear the path for new developments in the look of his art. In Bengston’s case,as was true of a number of the other local artists, the nature, or core, of his art remained relatively unchanged. However, this shift to new materials so radically altered the surfaces of these artists’ works that at various points between the last decade and the present moment a terrific feedback occurred which has affected not only the skin or surface of their objects, but has radically altered their earlier conceptions and ambitions. An intense concern for factual surface verisimilitude, taking forms as varied as the apparently mystical color evocations of Robert Irwin, and the barbed extirpations from the past and present in the tableaux of Edward Kienholz, characterizes the intensely creative circle of which Bengston is a primary member.

The obsessively idealistic conviction that color, surface quality, and inherent material corporeality can carry the entire weight of a total and satisfying art experience is posited without apology by Bengston and his colleagues. This position is of course not unique to Southern California artists, but it is not held with such overwhelming zeal anywhere else in the world. One of the side issues which seems to enforce this view is Bengston’s attitude toward experimentation. The concept, held in many quarters throughout the art world, that art objects may be experimental in design and fabrication, and that subsequent exhibition of the perhaps conceptually clear but fitfully executed objects is validated because of their experimental state, is wholly at odds with Southern California idealism. Only cold esthetic cash is fit to be shown; a complete assimilation of procedural experiment is required of the end product, in which the concept should be turned into as nearly perfect an object as possible before it is used, looked at, or considered as art. (Like the advanced technology of the aerospace industries, the relationship of the experimental process to the completed object is scrupulously measured, tested and codified before the product is considered usable.)

Bengston considers his paintings as being esthetically useful in direct proportion to their physical perfection. It follows that he values a state of affairs whereby quality is judged by the perfectness of the painted surface, much as one admires the look of a carefully engineered industrial tool, apart from its known function. The sensuously appealing, often pretty surfaces of Bengston’s pictures are implicitly coupled with a toolmaker’s or engineer’s notion about the perfect-ability of the product.

In the endeavor to forge his own artistic identity, Bengston appropriated a closed, individual portfolio of emblems which has in the past included the cross, the heart, the iris, and most familiarly, the stacked chevron. The only series of mature works not incorporating these images is a body of work completed in 1961 depicting various components of a B.S.A. motorcycle, culminating in a full portrait of a B.S.A. entitled Skinny’s 21.

Bengston’s ubiquitous emblem usually occupies a fraction of the entire picture at the center, and is either immersed within lacquered depths, floats decal-like atop the lacquer, or is differentiated from its surroundings by the intrusion of oil paint, contrasting with the polished field. He uses every manner of carefully laid brush strokes in combination with smooth spray-gun washes of color, topped with coats of clear lacquer to produce incredibly rich and lustrous surfaces. The emblem motif is often centered in a field which is itself a complex sign. (I refer literally to sign in the sense that it applies to advertising goods or services. Sign is perhaps too perfunctory a word to describe a visual phenomenon which amounts to an American totemic fetish.)

Bengston’s appropriation of a very special sign imagery offers a number of clues to his working methods and his esthetic decisions. He uses layers of sign systems within which he places his emblems. For instance, a work such as Busby, 1963, is inspired by the type of image created at least forty years ago. by manufacturers of pinball machines. Chaney, of 1962, seems to be primarily inspired by the theater marquee sign associated with movie palaces and, in their most sumptuous form, with Nevada gambling casinos. It should be understood that Bengston does not literally copy specific signs, but rather improvises on folk design devices. Generally he favors primitive and usually symmetrical layouts, with the various borders and design motifs repeated with an equalized visual tightness throughout the picture surface. In this way the spirit of Bengston’s paintings has an affinity to that of Roy Lichtenstein’s early Pop pictures, such as Roto-broil, in which a certain “dumb” placement of elements evokes the Sears, Roebuck sensibility of American mass culture. Unlike Lichtenstein and other Pop artists, Bengston chooses to keep his pictures in a medial domain between abstract art and Pop figuration (with the exception of the serialization of the B.S.A. motorcycle). In choosing to remain outside both Pop orthodoxy and current abstract art, Bengston turned to a lexicon of forms which are basically abstract, but which, in juxtaposition, remind one of the bizarre visual material which foists goods and services on the urban population. One can only add that life in Southern California, where there exists a stupefying glut of data with which to work, is perfectly suited to Bengston’s erotic conundrums.

Unlike the earlier Cross and later Chevron series, the Dracula paintings thrust themselves on the viewer with a smothering sweetness. The central emblem in these works appears to be a biomorphized variant of the common iris flower. The meanings of the word Iris in both French and Latin (the goddess, the rainbow, a sweet smelling plant) give further credence to a misreading of the motif. In these paintings the saccharine color, carefully adjusted hue against hue, recalls what might be a poetic combination of the meanings of the word Iris in three languages. What is seemingly true is actually false in the Iris pictures; the fact is that Bengston has fashioned the motif from the kitsch metaphysics used by Hollywood scenario writers to propel the Transylvanian Count Dracula from bat to human, as seen in the motion picture, Count Dracula. Bengston’s pseudo-Iris form is a depiction of the moment in which the bat dissolves in space and a flashing biomorphic form replaces it before the appearance of the dreaded Count materializes on the screen. The iconographic overtones of the Dracula series are not present in the Heart or Valentine paintings, the Chevron paintings, or the Canto Indento series.

As Bengston proceeded from the first of the Dracula series to the last, it became evident that the transmogrification of form is a personal interpretation of a fragment of public property, i.e. a popular movie. Each of the later series of paintings is created in the same manner, with one difference: the later motifs are extremely popular symbols which intrude on the consciousness of society as naturally as a mountain or a vanilla ice cream cone. The relative obscurity of the Dracula symbol contrasts sharply with the ultra-familiar chevron and valentine symbols.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Bengston’s oeuvre is that the pictures themselves refuse to become either wholly abstract or wholly figurative. The difficulty, of course, exists in the mind of the viewer and not in the paintings themselves. A first viewing of a body of Bengston’s work is puzzling because one is astounded at the richness of their brushed, lacquered and polished surfaces. When viewing a picture such as Big Duke for example, a deeper look reveals a chevron embedded within the rich color. A puzzling interval ensues—one questions the apparent intrusion of an emblematic device floating freely within or over the lacquered depths of color. The mind associates the chevron with a military rank, the heart with a valentine or a religious symbol stripped of thorny encumbrances. It is virtually impossible to suppress the impulse to read the emblems.

The disingenuousness of Bengston’s emblems is accounted for by two factors. The first of these is a studied irony about the very nature of the emblem as a vehicle which embodies an idea. In other words, if a viewer chooses to believe that the heart shape represents an upbeat manifestation of the idea of a bleeding heart, he is wrong. Bengston’s emblems are not there to be read. The second attribute consists of the kind of mass disingenuousness which occurs in contemporary advertising and graphic design. The ad agency uses emblems to sell products; the theory being that a significant emblem equals a significant product. Bengston uses the emblem as a peg on which he hangs his esthetic hat. It has further use as a personal logo, trademark and symbol of himself. As Bengston explains, he need not sign his pictures since they are signed literally and figuratively on a number of levels.

In exploring the nature of Bengston’s emblems, other issues emerge. In the advertising system, the emblem exists as a symbol for desirability and prestige, a cycle which terminates when the emblem becomes the actual product the advertiser wishes the customer to buy. The buyer has bought his notion of the product as well as the object itself. Bengston seemingly puns on the whole system. The sensuously appealing object (painting) contains a large, centered and baffling trademark (emblem) which instead of hinting at or suggesting a brilliant product, perversely calls attention to its enigmatically dumb self.

In the Canto Indento series, Bengston’s audacity is seen most clearly. In this, Bengston’s most recent series of works, the familiar supports of either canvas on stretcher bars or cradled sheets of pressed wood are dispensed with in favor of thin sheets of aluminum which Bengston proceeds to hammer, fold and crumple. Templates are cut to mask areas where overspray is not desired and masking tape is used to isolate specific areas. Coats of synthetic automobile lacquer are added one upon the other until a lustrous and variegated surface is achieved. The painted surface is obscured by a mass of shiny wrinkles, resulting from the hammering and crumpling of the aluminum sheet, which throw back reflected light to the viewer’s eyes. The spectator is forced to read the shiny highlights as an integral part of the total design in spite of the fact that the actual surfaces appear, and are, damaged in the traditional sense of the word. Neither the flayed surfaces of a de Kooning painting nor the battered auto remnants of a John Chamberlain sculpture prepare the viewer for the sinking of the senses which accompanies a first viewing of a Bengston Dento. Even after repeated viewings, there remains a large residue of pathos which illuminates the very center of the visual experience.

Perhaps the pathos can be explained by a nearly inadmissible coupling of painterly pride and willful destruction. The traditional role of the art object as the culmination of noble aims is called into question by the Canto Indento series. The unique history of each work is synthetically extended in time by a simultaneous reading of conception, creation and destruction. The poignancy of the works is lessened only slightly when the viewer is made to realize that the entire process was a willed decision.

The malevolent nature of Bengston’s art is couched in boudoir color and inherently eccentric form. Bengston suppresses a tendency toward the overt depiction of malignancy and instead metes out the emotive force carefully, serializes it, sets restrictive limits on its use and in other ways regulates it. By engineering or manipulating the uses to which psychic malevolence is used in art, by juxtaposing it with humor or playfulness, the artist is able to domesticate or at least sublimate this virulence to a great degree. The pathos of Bengston’s Canto Indento works lies in the fact that suddenly the artist could not build a picture with rage, but instead felt compelled to inflict the act of violence on the picture already completed. The sudden unmasking or unleashing of such willfulness is disarming. As one grows accustomed to the capriciousness of punctures and dents on the surface of the pictures, it becomes apparent (especially in the latest Dentos) that Bengston is spraying color with increased looseness, thereby equalizing the applied design and configuration of the painted surface.

James Monte