Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston

James Corcoran Gallery

Michael Todd’s inspiration might be Japanoiserie, but for Billy Al Bengston, the exotica of another part of the Pacific is motivating. His “Lahaina” watercolors—Lahaina is on the island of Maui in Hawaii—with their sunset colors, represent a hairpin turn from his earlier work.

I used to view Bengston’s tony canvases as an overt example of what Peter Plagens refers to as the California “finish fetish.” Presumably the spiritual source of the fetish is the airbrushed and laminated motifs embellishing surfboards and vans, not to speak of the different quality of light which makes for a luminist movement. Bengston’s celebrated iconography—irises and chevrons—functioned for me like designer initials on garments: easy to identify and status to own. A Bengston, like a Courrèges, can be spotted from 50 paces. The insouciant qualities of his repeated imagery, however, wear well. In time, the irises and chevrons are just a signature, like Hans Hofmann’s intrusive double-H. The painting surrounding Bengston’s icons is remarkably sophisticated, energetic.

The new watercolors represent the meeting of Bengston’s controlling instinct and his intuition. He retains his signature of irises, but plants them in the same garden as sheltering fronds and leaves of grass. Like the 1977 shows of Lee Krasner and Manny Farber, and the recent Publicons of Robert Rauschenberg, what’s striking about the “Lahaina” watercolors is that they’re a combination of Bengston’s old and new styles. The irises are rigid, enclosed in a protective circle—perhaps stamped on?—and they stand in sober juxtaposition with the relaxed fronds, grass and falling leaves. The irises have a sense of propriety, history; the vegetation is lush and laid back.

The offbeat mix of sunshine and sultriness in these paintings produces an amusing tropicana effect. Vegetation of many shores, patterning problems with a multiplicity of solutions, give Bengston’s work a quirky all-overness his earlier work lacked. He experiments with all over patterning, with rhythms of one repeated image, to the point of practically quilting these different styles together. If simple or complex juxtaposition doesn’t give Bengston the effect he wants, he uses superimposition, getting a transparently layered feeling.

The tropical taste of Bengston’s intimate-scale watercolors makes me thirsty for a drink of something on a larger scale.

Carrie Rickey