PRINT March 1975

Billy Al Bengston’s New Paintings

FROM FERUS GALLERY’S HAYDAY in the late ’50s, two threads have wound their ways through contemporary art in Southern California. One, the Irwin-esque appetite for reduction (through phenomenology to the brink of mysticism), is swathed in righteousness while the other, the manufacture of exotically good-looking art objects, wallows in structuralist disrepute. Every time Ron Davis, Dewain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Ken Price, or Ed Moses—not to mention the younger stratum of Guy and Laddie Dill, Charles Arnoldi, Ann McCoy, or Jim de France—shows, the work must overcome an initial condescension regarding visual tours de force. Sure, it’s halfway deserved: their good-looking art assumes a cozy, invulnerable self-definition, and fey, glittery rehashes of formalism get a little tiring. On the other hand, what’s art (as opposed to bastard forms of poetry, philosophy, bibliography, systems analysis, narrative prose, arithmetic, and even art criticism), if not profound decoration?

Billy Al Bengston’s new paintings will most likely be appraised according to party line; reactionaries sentimental about the eternal sibyl of painting or collectors selecting art like Gucci bags will regard them as delicious, oversized bonbons while artists and journalists with an art-as-news prejudice disguised as dialectics will see them as retardataire exercises in latent French tastefulness. They’re neither. Beneath the trademark iconism of Bengston’s oeuvre (Ferus AE, ’60–’62 motorcycles, mid-’60s emblems like Buster or the dentos, and last year’s big insignia-plus-spash paintings), lies a considerable esthetic continuum. Bengston picked it up early from Jasper Johns and passed it on to artists like Ed Ruscha (art-as-professionalism), Larry Bell (the thing-in-itself into a cube), and Joe Goode (little houses in the center). Sometime last year, Bengston produced a flurry of watercolors. These further developed a break in the iconism (iris or chevron central to a square within a square) first noticed in a four-foot watercolor; and that—the departure from the comfort of centripetal ism into an open-ended sliding scale of horizontals and verticals where the picture space can no longer cling to the edges of the canvas—is the emphasis of these paintings. The pictures are flatter but the paint more transparent; the irises are larger but their literalness drastically reduced; and the “expressionism” is more refined but slippier. In a phrase, the new paintings are out front about being out front.

Bengston’s main obstacle is scale. He brought a literal carload of material (unstretched canvases, even a two-sided banner) to the Nicholas Wilder Gallery,fully intending to “paper the place” with painting (singular) much like he and Moses cluttered the Mizuno gallery with “tea tables and tapestries” four years ago. All the pictures are large, but the show still carries gratuitously daring size shifts. The price Bengston pays is an uncertainty about viewer distance. Are we to view these works close up like those of Moses, far back like those of Sam Francis, both like those of Ron Davis, or differently with each picture, and how different? We must understand, however, that Bengston frets over the necessary adulteration of purist ethics (i.e., we’d all like to live secluded at the beach, do our art, and speak only to a few sympathetic colleagues, but baby needs shoes, so . . .) in the rent-paying art world, and his integrity-salve is a continued testing of the system. (We forget the guy known as the master of commercial self-reliance is also the artist who refused to let the Whitney Museum borrow his paintings for free and hasn’t kowtowed to New York authentication since the Martha Jackson gallery in 1962.) In short, Bengston believes selling and its attendant, the show, are whoring, and that show esthetics have, in the last 20 years, usurped contemplation of singular pictures; but he knows that for a picture to get the hell out of the studio and function (for a collector, a museum, a college class, a public) it must first perform the little song-and-dance of show. So, perversely, he crowds the exhibition just short of rendering the paintings unintelligible. In this one, he staples the biggest picture, Punta Lobos Draculas, unstretched to the wall, running it around a corner and—slap in the face—cuts out a little notch for the door to the phone cabinet.

The seminal piece (though not the best) is El Limona Draculas, a screen about 6’ high painted on one side; orientally elegant it is, but it’s also funky, reminiscent of local loner Charles Garabedian’s wonderful “fence” paintings of the China series c. 1970 (Artforum, January, 1971). In it Bengston excuses himself from the old square format, but retains an 80” interior unit as a tool for the execution of transparencies, overlaps, push-pulls, etc. Most of the residual irises (which Bengston keeps as dependable friends to whom he can delegate the responsibility of clarifying complicated friskets, overstains, and color combinations) are attached to the interior squares. Bengston, now unshackled of 15 years of icons, emblems, and an oeuvre primarily comprising squares, has raised another specter: how to weld together paintings deprived of the security of squares and central irises? His solutions are inventive, indeed brilliant.

In the biggest room the biggest painting is, as noted, unstretched, stapled to the wall, around a corner, terminating in the notch. The impossibility of “marrying” the right-hand edge of a greasy gray, silver-pink, and whitish painting to a left which cannot be seen from the same vantage point is gotten ’round by indifferent episodic arrangement; the picture reads as a “feathered” left-to-right composition wherein any one part of the picture is not crucial to the whole, but wherein the whole thing looks . . . well, together. It’s relational nonrelational painting, and it hints at Bengston’s original facetious proposal to roll the paintings off the bolt like dry goods, for sale by the yard. His studied iconoclasm raises still another problem: abstract painting so educated, deft, and readily attractive it can only be dealt with from here on out as virtuoso performance. Bengston doing a roomful of painting is like Joe Willie Namath doing a gameful of curl patterns, Jason Robards doing an eveningful of O’Neill, Tina Turner doing a concertful of. . . . and so on. He may not have invented the game, authored the drama, or written the music, but he plays them so damned well.

Bengston’s color is colorful but tempered. Even in the “Cubist” (his term) or “Stuart Davis” (Wilder’s term) paintings dealing with primaries, the chroma is a function of wit. For instances, there are two primary-color paintings in the rear room, one straight (with a strange, brushmark Archipenko maple-leaf shape), but the other with black applied as a stain over the primaries, creating odd, dark, decidedly un-Mondrian by-products. The rest possess beautiful but cleverly typical acrylic color—Mafia suit red greens, milky sworls, brilliant blues and aquas, Easter pastels, and a near black speckled with pink and yellow (quite a range, what?). In one of the last pictures painted, Garropa Espiga, a red-on-rust brown vertical painting resembling a cross between a Robert Goodnough and an Indian blanket, chroma is fined down to a scheme, in which sheer decoration is avoided only by the traces of chalk outlining the various configurations, and their crisp lip service to painterly slovenliness.

Something should be said about the iris, and subject matter. “I’ve always been an abstract painter,” says Bengston, even of Skinny’s 21, the 1961 motorcycle painting generally regarded as prototypical L.A. Pop, and it’s pretty obvious by now that a problem of interpretation exists. Readymade formats, like Johns’s targets, Kenneth Noland’s chevrons, or Stella’s interlacing arcs are useful for obviating “nursemaid painting,” as Stella called it; but graphic capriciousness demands follow-through, like Stella’s flat, pseudo-dumb paint application or Johns’s encaustic parodies of AE brushstroke. Bengston, to the contrary, indulges himself in some of the most lush, tricky, sophisticated painting in my memory. Could it be he frolicks because he’s so sure of the arrangement—emblems inscribed in squares by stencil? But even that neglects his hanging on to the iris now. I’m a mediocre cocktail party psychoanalyst and I hate iconography (the stomach pump of art history), but the iris haunts me. Androgyny. It thrusts its way upward into the paintings like a phallus and it’s shaped like one, especially near the tip/head. But there’s a vaginal slot in it, too, and the thing unfolds like labia. This is not to say the device is contrived or literary. Rather, I think it’s a lovely visualization of the masculine-feminine lamination which is painting. Art, supposedly for the ladies on a finishing-school level, has been populated for the last two generations by “tough” blue-collar guys who make their paintings “work.” Painting, supposedly the result of craggy catharsis or machine-shop professionalism (“If you can’t do these things,” Bengston says of his painterly devices, “maybe you’re in the wrong business”), results in artworks whose silent, salient virtues have long been considered feminine—delicacy, refinement, nuance, etc. Abstract painting, supposedly structured on super-Cubist cerebral formalist analysis, is actually highly intuitive, even glamorous. I use the genders as description, not advocacy; in the best art (and advocacy art—feminist or chauvinist, revolutionary or authoritarian—is compromised art), sexual separation is transcended, and Bengston goes a long way in realizing it.

These pictures, however, have some shortcomings. Bengston’s postulate, roughly paraphrased as “it’s got to be good-looking or it’s worthless,” lends itself too easily to the chemical yummies of acrylics: bleeds, stains, maskings, semidried gels, overlays, squirts, splashes, injections of silver pigment, etc. While no evils in themselves, they partake of Rhoplex AC-33’s inevitably frozen, dulled, air-tightly sealed facility. Oil paint is difficult, but used simply and decently exudes sincerity; acrylic is exotic and easy, and exudes expediency. A few Bengston paintings reach a naked complexity where mental-visual reconstruction is unimaginable (this over that over this again over what?) and it’s pointless, if not debilitating. Nothing nasty happens because in the dexterous swamp nothing nasty can happen. (Bengston says, “If Vermeer were alive today and painting the same pictures he painted then, he’d still be the best living painter in the world.” But he probably wouldn’t use acrylics.)

In summary: it’s tempting to see these paintings, depending on which side of the art object debate you stand, as either wonderful, fragrant, inventive wall coverings, or as the last perfumy gasp of modernist artisanry. Look more closely. Bengston’s latest pictures are deceptively heady, flamboyantly risky, and even poignant, not only within his own concerns, but within the whole of abstract painting’s tenacious, persistent power to enlighten us.

Peter Plagens