Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

As this well-chosen minisurvey made clear, Billy Al Bengston will be a central figure in revisionist accounts of ’60s painting. Not only is his work of the period located at the productive intersection of Color Field and Pop, a convergence explored in current painting (from Kevin Appel to Laura Owens), but he is one of a number of West Coast artists, including Robert Irwin and Ken Price, who were instrumental in redefining the terms of artistic identity in the early ’60s by insisting that subcultural affinities and leisure-time activities (surfing, car customizing) were at the foundation of their artistic personas.

Early in his career, Bengston demonstrated that he had absorbed the structural lessons of late modernist painting, particularly the target works of Kenneth Noland.
According to Michael Fried, Noland’s breakthrough was to position his concentric motifs at the exact middle of square canvases thus relating the literal and the depicted shape of the work through symmetry. The center of Bengston’s Ideal Exhaust, 1961, a kind of target formed by the radiating pipes of a motorcycle exhaust (the artist was a semiprofessional motorcycle racer), is occupied by the exhaust’s heat exchangers literalizing the focal point as the site of maximum intensity. But Bengston’s incorporation of subcultural practice into his art went far beyond iconography, as the other early-’60s paintings on display demonstrated. In the oil painting Sonny, 1961, he finishes the surface with a coat of liquid wax, giving the painting the hard, mirrorlke sheen of a cherry roadster.

Over the next couple of years, Bengston achieved his most significant works by adopting the tools and materials of the automobile and motorcycle customizer: industrial lacquers and the spray gun. Busby, 1963, a large rectangular lacquer-and-oil painting on Masonite, displays how nuanced this new technique could be. Five concentric ovals form the heart of the painting. Surrounding an interior pill shape of opaque forest green lacquer are a ring of brushed silver circles with yellow outlines; a wide black lacquered area whose edges tinge into a green corona; a gesturally brushed band of orange and metallic turquoise oil over a black ground; and a ribbon of sky blue dusted with pale peach. Inside the inner oval, a black circle girded in intense yellow contains Bengston’s trademark chevrons in the forest green of the surrounding oval. The silver and yellow circles radiate like spotlights surrounding a billboard, while the hot yellow circle pulls attention back toward the center, causing a flickering that makes it impossible to fix relationships between design elements that differ in hue or value, while preventing a focus on individual details of the composition—except for the chevrons, which become reified as Pop logo. Overall, there is a barely controlled tension in the work between color as color and color as space.

The tension explodes in his “Dentos” series, 1966-71, sheets of aluminum that Bengston violently deformed with a ballpeen hammer and other blunt instruments and sometimes more methodically bent and buckled. Here, in a re-creation of a 1970 exhibition at LA’s Mizuno Gallery, a whole roomful of these paintings hung in diffused candlelight. The fundamental qualities of these paintings—the color of their sprayed surfaces, the orientation of internal design elements, the perceived shape of the support, even the visibility of the chevrons—were entirely a function of spatial relationships between a mobile viewer and the changing ambient light. In these works, Bengston thinks as profoundly about the material experience and display conditions of art through illusionistic painting as anybody did in the ’60s in the more literal domain of sculpture.

Andrew Perchuk