Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston

Mizuno Gallery

Billy Al Bengston’s exhibition at the Mizuno Gallery is his first since a major retrospective exhibition of his work was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968. The installation of the County Museum exhibition was so arranged as to destroy Bengston’s paintings as objects of Kunstwissenschaft. The present exhibition’s presentation heightens the sense of mystique one felt at the County Museum. Of the dozen or so works exhibited, all but three could be seen only by candlelight, a makeshift gesture with makeshift candelabra which serves here only to obscure the luxuriousness of the surfaces of his new works.

All of the objects exhibited are “Dentos,” aluminum sheets of moderate size, ranging from about two to four feet square which have been crinkled or dented, sometimes in a regular pattern, sometimes randomly, then surfaced with lacquer; there are also several “drawings,” aluminum sheets in which surface designs have been abraded into the surface rather than painted. The painted surfaces of these new works are sensuous in the, extreme. The sprayed-on chevron, the Bengston iconic image, remains, as does a narrow border of sprayed color, outlining the work, but the rest of the surface is covered with flowed and splattered color—a purely Abstract Expressionist technique but with a muted result close to that quality of “tinted steam” which Turner sought to achieve. These translucent and sometimes pearlescent washes are flowed over ground colors that range from dark blues and violets to the most subtle lavenders and beiges.

My first response to these works was to think that Bengston had looked to Ron Davis’s recent work as a source for this surface treatment. Bengston, however, uses the washes in a much less illusionistic way. Structure and formal order have always been important to Bengston; the chevron and border are used to prevent a too easy informality, to centralize the work, and to offer the necessary focus and sense of containment Bengston designs. The chevrons are in fact sometimes placed on the surface of these translucent washes, sometimes beneath them, and are more or less visible, but never totally obscured. Curiously, the candlelight which slows down perception of the surface subtleties does reveal, in the flickering reflections, the substructure of the Dentos, the twisted and racked metal upon which the surface floats. These simple works operate on several levels, with the structure being independent of surface and revealing itself independently.

Thomas H. Garver