New York

Billy Al Bengston

Acquavella Gallery

Billy Al Bengston lives in California. His art is every nightmare a New York Serious Art Person ever had about California art. There is the old story about an artist who races cars, surfs, and lives year-round at the beach. And his better known shiny, candy-colored, car spray paintings—well, cars, Los Angeles, and eternal adolescence all go together.

Bengston was temporarily accepted and authorized by the Eastern establishment as a Pop Art devotee. He disappeared from New York after that—misunderstood and forever tagged and shelved. He surfaced, quite to my surprise, in the Whitney Biennial this year. And now, a big show at a palatial gallery. What does this reemergence mean? Is it sheer commercial good instincts? Bengston was playing with decoration before anyone even dared consider it in New York—tea tables; standing screens; bamboo mobiles; wallpaper paintings, unstretched, painted like fabric off the bolt—the whole bit.

This is an ideal time to reconsider his painting, not as part of the new decorative movement, but as a parallel presence, as a model of independence, of integrity in the face of mainstream indifference—an artist of high energy, flamboyance, drawn to the exotic, the excessive, to technical virtuosity, to sensuous, exquisite surface refinement. Bengston carries this idea to an extreme, unabashedly, without scorn or bitterness, without the guilt such a gesture usually brings with it. His is painting as decorative seduction, outwardly directed in feeling, not self-absorbed.

For this show, Bengston flew out to Hawaii. Like the Impressionists, Bengston has learned from patient and careful study how to capture the light, the color, the humidity, the temperature of Venice. He uses this knowledge to create a sketchbook of tropical notations in a series of watercolors not so far removed from Winslow Homer in the Caribbean. These are even more lush, casual and light-filled than the acrylics. They are also Delacroix in Algiers, Klee in Egypt, Gauguin in Tahiti. Open to suggestions from his environment, Bengston introduces a new range of subjects: rainbows, palm fronds, great big splashy red flower petals (not his regular irises), large close-ups of leaves, tiny olive green and red vegetation, stripe motifs—venetian blinds (a pun?) or bamboo curtains. The location demanded a (newly acquired?) talent for imitating the ink and brush style of Chinese nature painting—very crisp, offhanded, masterly.

Bengston kept his paintings centralized for a long time—rectangles inside rectangles lined up with the edges, with stripes and then irises dead center, set and static, with wild, whipped paint on top. In 1975 all this changed. The rectangles became “undone,” were literally shifted from the center of focus. Paintings became extended, scrolllike, panoramalike, and the rectangles were layered in parallel, transparent pictorial planes—or, like cinematic images, imitated lap dissolves, superimpositions, dislocated time movements. The iris still held the center together however.

Now, in a successful attempt to find a more free, open structure, the rectangles have been tilted off in different directions, overlapping in sharp, oblique sections, creating irregular areas with the iris shoved into a corner, often overlapping with another iris. What the paintings thankfully lack in aggression, disaffection or pretentiousness they more than make up by occasional drama: crimson with streaks of translucent blue over silver with a green iris; black and gold with trails of yellow and silver; fuchsia over silver splatters; black dry brush gestures over magenta. breathtaking bits of painting.

The Noela Draculus, Kaikoo Draculus and the Oili Draculus are the best paintings, if only because they are the most dense and complex. They take a while to comprehend. Each is under three feet square, packed with four partial rectangles, juggled, embellished with dark, acid, bright, metallic color. Indebted to the rectangle but not bound to it, these new collagelike compositions are precise but abandoned to their own excessiveness as free gesture: the structure of Bengston’s paintings is closer to his painting technique than ever before. The internal edges are no longer straight, but mimic the deckled edge of handmade paper. Bengston’s formal invention in the last five years has been prodigious—arcs, double crossed bars, circles, irregular geometries—now, short, random lines that “resist” the ground color; thick scrapings in ridges; air brushings down to the duck; thin arcs with sprays of projected, inky paint.

As important as this ever-evolving movement toward greater complexity, toward a more flexible dynamic pictorial structure, is the psychological component of Bengston’s art. The painting seems tied intimately to intense sexual desire. Bengston’s is more a flirtation, an invitation, a lure, than a surrogate, the way de Kooning’s paintings so often are. But the comparison is apt: both artists are expressing deliberate strategies of seduction and desire. Even if one couldn’t accept the reading of the iris as a male/female or bisexual symbol, it would still be difficult to discount the effect of Bengston’s proud display, his attention-getting gestures, his alluring colors, his caressed surfaces, the tender and passionate moments of paint application, the occasionally self-mocking exhibitionism of these paintings.

Jeff Perrone