“The world is not monochromatic,” Billy Al Bengston reminds me, telling me why he won’t make another blue painting anytime soon. We are sitting at a table inside VENUS Over Manhattan gallery, where Bengston, who lives in Los Angeles, has an exhibition of both recent and historic paintings. The recent work is a series of monochromatic blue paintings which incorporate the chevron — a symbol he has been utilizing on and off since the 1960s.
Bengston, himself, brings a raucous sense of color into the space. He is dressed in one of the snappy ensembles he’s known for — a Hawaiian shirt tucked under a blue V-neck cardigan sweater, layered with an African print fabric jacket. He relishes being off-color, too: cussing and telling jokes that push at the limits of acceptability. It’s a kind of implicit take-down of the preciousness of the white cube, the polished and commodified art world.
“Practically everything I do takes ten years for people to get,” Bengston says — perhaps a reason why several of his 1950s and ‘60s exhibitions have recently been re-staged. The 12 paintings from his B.S.A. Motorcycle Series, (1961) currently on view at VENUS, are from the exhibition he staged at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles the year they were made. Bengston was an integral, original member of this scene — the place where the avant-garde lived, at a time when the city was still culturally provincial.
Bengston embodies the California cool aesthetic — his lifestyle (surfer, motorcyle-racer, rule-breaker) is interconnected with his work. His is an aesthetic that fuses Pop and Finish-Fetish with a resolute commitment to hand-craftsmanship. The B.S.A. paintings may depict icons and motorcycle parts, but they have an aura reminiscent of the radiating, centralized geometry found in anonymous Tantra paintings. For him, good art is transportive, an athletic feat, and above all, should never be boring.
Bengston studied at Los Angeles City College; the California College of Arts & Crafts, Oakland, California; and Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles. Between 1958 and 1963, he had five solo shows at Ferus Gallery. In 1968, he was given a ten-year survey exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for which he enlisted Frank Gehry to create an architectural environment where the paintings would be staged. In addition to the chevron, he has also used the logo of the Iris Sugar Company to make paintings with a centralized flower form. This series is named Dracula because the silhouetted shape was said to look like a flying Dracula, as well as a flower. His embrace of motorcycle and car culture led him to using enamel and lacquer to create highly reflective surfaces on masonite or metal, some of which are then dented and altered with a hammer (“Dentos” paintings). He has been the subject of exhibitions at the Honolulu Museum of Art; the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas; the Oakland Museum; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. His work was shown this year at Neuendorf Projects, Berlin; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Franklin Parrasch Gallery, New York; Samuel Freeman Gallery, Los Angeles; and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
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Jennifer Samet: Can you tell me about your background and how you got into painting?
Billy Al Bengston: I was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1934. My father pressed the farts out of pants (he was a tailor and had a dry cleaning business), and my mother was a musician. She was a child prodigy. She could sight-read and transpose on the piano when she was four years old. She could play every instrument in the orchestra, and she could sing best of all. She came to California to sing in the San Francisco opera for a while. Then we went back to Kansas, and then returned to California. My mom started teaching while she finished her master’s degree at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. I went to junior high school in Los Angeles, and matriculated to Manual Arts High School.
Manual Arts was famous for one thing. It was the first and only high school in the United States that had nude models in the art department. I was pretty excited about this, until it happened. They were some of the ugliest people you’ve ever seen. But, Manual Arts had a full-kit ceramics department, as well as metalworking and woodworking. It was back when people used to make things by themselves. It was a piece of cake for me. I enjoyed it — still do.
JS: Have you always felt that art-making is easy?
BAB: No, and it is getting harder. The more you know, the harder it gets. But the technique is not a problem — all that takes is practice and time. You learn that from being a musician: you have to build your chops.
JS: One of your teachers was Peter Voulkos. How did you end up studying with him?
BAB: I would go back and forth with college, dropping out and trying to start again, always with pottery. Then I decided I was going to become an artist. First I went up to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Later, I worked with Peter Voulkos. You didn’t “study with” Voulkos; you worked with him. His class was not a class; it was a job.
He would call you around midnight and say, “We’re making clay. See you in a half an hour.” I would roll my car — a 1937 Pontiac convertible with no top — down the hill to get it to start, and then go make clay. We used bread mixers, which were circular and eight-feet wide. We made 5000 pounds at a time. Ken Price and I would take 500 pounds and Peter Voulkos and Jon Mason would take the rest. They would be done making it before we got started. At the end of the session, which was about 7 or 8 in the mornng, we would go have breakfast at the place across the street. Then we would go home and go to bed. It was a great, great time.
Voulkos and Mason were mind-boggling. You just watched to see what you could learn. You stole as many ideas as you possibly could. That’s how you learned. I couldn’t believe the things Voulkus could do, and I still can’t believe it. He was without a doubt one of the great wonders of the world, a God-awful great talent.
Pete was a butt-breaker; he was so strong. He picked me up one day and locked me in the kiln because I was too rowdy. It was so much fun. I lasted a year in the ceramics department until I said, “I’m done with this.” I knew I was never going to be as good a ceramicist as he was. I decided to be a painter, because I thought I could paint better than Pete. I told Ken Price about this. I asked him what he was going to do, how he could continue with ceramics, and he said, “I’m gonna go furthy d’out by going furthy d’in.”
I also had the privilege of studying with Richard Diebenkorn and Saburo Hasegawa. I learned a lot of bad painting habits from Diebenkorn, and I learned a lot of good life habits from Hasegawa. Saburo was an amazing guy. He would be fully dressed in his grandfather’s samurai outfit.
JS: What were the bad painting habits that you felt Diebenkorn was encouraging?
BAB: Indecision. The culture of “put it on; take it off.” Now I say, “Make up your mind before you do it.” He was against that. The beauty of studying with Saburo Hasegawa was that he would give you an assignment and he would say, “Take this paper where you want it to, or as many places as you want.” You had to make a decision.
Hasegawa and I became friends because I lived in a house with a bunch of unusual people. I cooked dinner for everyone — they would each pay 25 cents. I became friends with the people at the Italian meat market across the street. I asked them if I could have all the bones and leftover bits. I’d go over and collect the trash and make dinner out of it. Long story short, I had a good life.
JS: You were one of the artists who showed in the legendary Ferus Gallery. How did you become involved with that scene?
BAB: In my cruising around I ran into Ed Keinholz, who was up in Echo Park at the time. He opened a gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. It was a small space inside of the art theater. Then, with Walter Hopps, he opened Ferus Gallery. He would be in the back doing his thing. I’d take him a six-pack and we’d hang out. He said, “Want to have a show here?” I said, “Sure.”
The first show I did there was Abstract Expressionist work, and my second show was the “Valentine” paintings. Those paintings came about because my show (at the new gallery) was scheduled to open on Valentine’s Day.
There are certain things that teachers say you can’t do in painting. One of them is that you can’t make a painting where the forms are in the center. You have to have this golden mean or something. It’s art school stuff. They would diagnose paintings done 600 years ago and say, “That is the perfect composition.” What the fuck are you talking about? It doesn’t make any sense.
If people say you can’t do something, that’s what I’m going to do. And I’ve gotten shit about the center thing all my life. These paintings, and the Valentine paintings, had forms in the center. Is there anyplace else, other than the center, to put the form? I don’t dive on the edges of the pool, if I can help it. You go for the sweet center.
Anyway, I was fortunate enough to meet Craig Kauffman at that time, and quite a few of the other artists in town, like John Altoon. Craig Kauffman was quite an inspiration. He kicked everything off. He was brilliant, and he stayed brilliant and still a pain in the ass. He could see really well.
Walter Hopps had a place behind the Ferus gallery and I had just come back from Europe and I didn’t have a place to live. So, he gave me a room. It had a little balcony and I painted the Valentines there – all except one. I was an indoor easel painter even though I didn’t have an easel.
So I decided to paint an all Payne’s Grey painting, with one type of brush— a number 1 sharp, as I recall. I painted this nearly-black painting — which is another thing people said you can’t do. Now, of course, you can do anything. I wore out four brushes and three tubes of paint. It was the only painting that sold. The Los Angeles County Museum bought it for $100. I was a happy guy. I was in the hospital at the time because I broke my back motorcycle racing.
JS: What got you interested in motorcycle racing? On view here at Venus is a group of historic paintings from your 1961 “B.S.A. Motorcycle” series, as well as recent blue monochromes, dedicated to Aub LeBard, an off-road motorcycle racer, and co-owner of the LeBard & Underwood motorcycle shop.
BAB: I went to Europe in 1958, and rode all around on a Lambretta. I returned to New York, waiting for my scooter to come. It finally came, but they managed to drop it off the van, and bend the front forks. I sent it back to California but I couldn’t get anyone to fix it.
I called around and finally talked to the LeBard shop. Even though they were a B.S.A. motorcycle shop, they agreed to fix it. I so admired the motorcycle racers and the people. I said, “I have got to get into this.” It was a thrill and a half. Aub LeBard was an inspiration and later became my sponsor.
Racing motorcycles was supposed to be the most dangerous thing you could do. So I did it to make a living. I did stunts in movies too. I had done gymnastics training. I always tried to take a job that would pay the most for the least amount of time, so that I could go back to work quickly. I could jump off a building and make enough to live for a month, without even thinking about it. Sometimes it would be enough to live for three or four months — rent and food.
I do what I do. I have no fucking idea why. When I painted these motorcycle paintings, I pissed people off beyond belief. I don’t know why. They are just paintings. You don’t have to look at them. Whenever I get in trouble, I quote Ken. He said, “The only thing you have to do to outrage people is anything.”
JS: Monochromatic painting has been something you’ve done at different points in your life. What interests you about monochromatic painting?
BAB: It is a joke. The show includes a motorcycle I raced, which I got from Aub’s shop. At the time, I told him, “I’m going to paint this motorcycle.” He said, “You can paint it any color you want to, as long as it’s blue.” Everything he owned was blue.
It is a challenge to do everything in monochrome. You have to do a lot with textural variation — thin and thick paint. You remove highlights so you have to build highlights. You remove the center of interest, so you have to build center of interest. They are all built differently.
JS: You’ve also been an avid surfer. How is that connected to your painting?
BAB: I started surfing when I was in seventh or eighth grade at the Oceanside Pier. That is where Phil Edwards, who was easily the most talented surfer of my time, lived. He invented the bottom turn, which revolutionized surfing. In 1953, I got lucky enough to be a beach attendant, which means I worked at Doheny Beach State Park. I cleaned restrooms, hauled the garbage, things like that. They gave me a campsite and I got to know every surfer, because they would stay with me at the campsite.
I moved to Ocean Park with Ken Price. We surfed both sides of the pier. We haunted Malibu. I bought him lunch one day and he would buy me lunch the next day. He would have a Heath bar and I would have a Snicker’s bar. That was lunch.
JS: You have a studio and live part time in Hawaii. Can you tell me about adopting imagery from the indigenous culture into your painting?
BAB: I steal everything I possibly can. There’s nothing so sacred you can’t steal it and make an image out of it. Unfortunately most things aren’t worth stealing. As much as I like eating hotdogs, I don’t paint them. But they look pretty sharp. Hamburgers, on the other hand, don’t look so good.
JS: Oldenberg managed.
BAB: Claes is a different bird. He’s an illustrator. You can do good things with a piece of lettuce if you’re an illustrator. I don’t understand why anyone would do straight representational work. If you are representing something, you might as well take a photograph. A camera is better for that. The only problem is that you lose the texture. That is where paint is better — for its texture and depth. Paint is contiguous, and a camera produces dots. You can see them if you magnify the image.
Also, the paper that photographs are printed on is boring. Or is it just the picture that is boring? I don’t know. Abstraction with a camera — aside from Weegee — is boring. You just don’t quite have the flexibility with the camera. But, photography is a great tool. I certainly would prefer that photography be used for an X-ray. It’s like saying, “What’s better to paint with, a hammer or a brush?”
JS: Although you have painted with a hammer.
BAB: Well, yes, I’ve used hammers. I’ve destroyed with hammers. And I’ve modified with hammers. Goddamn, you’re gonna pin me down here.
JS: Haha. You were telling me what painting can do as opposed to photography. I was thinking maybe it had to do with something you’ve said about creating air.
BAB: Yes, it goes back to what Kenny Price said, “You go furthy d’out by going furthy d’in.” In other words, you breathe it, put air in it, give it life. If you are lucky, you get it right. A lot of it is luck, and the rest is standing light and pushing hard. There are a lot of starts that never get to a finish. That’s why God invented razor blades. You shave ‘em deep. If they are no good, there’s no sense fixing them.
JS: You don’t go back into them?
BAB: I couldn’t. I wish I could. The painting “Ideal Exhaust” (1961) is so naïve that I could never do it again. I couldn’t do it that good. I don’t think there is anything here I could do again. If you get it real realistic, you can do it again. But if you are clumsily making it abstract, it’s very hard to repaint. You don’t have the instruments; you don’t think the same way. Your hand works differently.
There are mistakes in that painting that I can’t believe that I made – three or four things I could point out, but I won’t. If you look at “Barrel & Exhaust Pipe” (1961), the exhaust pipe is incorrectly placed. It don’t look like that. I don’t know why I did it that way. Maybe because I couldn’t do it right, and I thought no one else would know the difference. I’m not really anal compulsive. I sorta like zits sometimes. If you like perfection, it ain’t gonna look perfect later. You’ve gotta learn to love it (or not).