Billy Al Bengston, the influential painter who was a key figure in the heady, freewheeling Los Angeles art scene of the 1960s, died of natural causes on Saturday, October 8 at his home in Venice, California. “Words cannot describe the loss of this California legend, who was loved and revered by so many,” read a statement released by his gallery, Various Small Fires. The artist was 88 years old.
Bengston gained prominence with his hard-edge abstractions painted in enamel or lacquer that featured symbols like chevron “sergeant stripes” and hearts and depictions of automotive parts, as he was an avid motorcycle racer. Critics associated his work with the Finish Fetish movement or West Coast Pop Art, though it never fit discreetly within either of those labels. In the mid-1960s, he disrupted the pristine flatness of his surfaces by attacking them with a hammer, calling the resulting works “dentos.”
“In the context of postwar art, resolutely flat, abstract images were being championed. So were demands for so-called ‘American-type’ painting that could distinguish a work from European Modernism. Sergeant stripes kill those two birds with one very well-placed, very witty stone,” wrote critic Christopher Knight in the LA Times in 2017.
Bengston got his start with the legendary Ferus Gallery in LA, which also showed Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Ed Moses, and Robert Irwin. Even amongst the cadre of hyper-masculine, larger-than-life personalities surrounding Ferus, Bengston stood out.
“He was the leader of that pack,” writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp told Hyperallergic. “He was a tremendous athlete, a surfer, who could stay up all night at the Whisky-A-Go-Go dancing to Ike and Tina. Even in school, he was referred to as the rainbow, for the number of colors in his outfits.” Michael Slenske, a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and curator, described Bengston as “a mythmaker.”
Born in 1934 in Dodge City, Kansas, Bengston spent his formative years in Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was a child. He attended the Manual Arts High School, whose alumni included Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston; then, at Los Angeles City College and the California College of Arts & Crafts, Oakland, his teachers included Richard Diebenkorn and Saburo Hasegawa. He later studied with famed ceramicist Peter Voulkos. “I couldn’t believe the things Voulkus could do, and I still can’t believe it,” Bengston said in a 2016 interview with Jennifer Samet for Hyperallergic’s Beer With a Painter series. “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.”
Between 1958 and 1963, Bengston had five solo shows at Ferus Gallery, and in 1968, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized a 10-year retrospective, designed by then-emerging architect Frank Gehry. But despite his critical and financial success, Bengston had a contrarian streak, exemplified by his decision to make the direct center of his paintings the focal point, a cardinal sin according to his art school teachers.
“It was this radical gesture of pushing up against what was accepted,” Esther Kim Varet, founder of Various Small Fires, told Hyperallergic. “A lot of artists look to him as an original source for the building of an alternative narrative.”
As a key member of the “Cool School” centered around Ferus Gallery, Bengston helped legitimize West Coast art in the eyes of the Eurocentric, New York-based art elite. With his hard-edged abstraction and exploration of industrial materials, he pioneered the Finish Fetish movement, though his work would expand beyond its confines. His persona as a tough-living, motorcycle-riding, surfing Californian no doubt added to his notoriety.
Bengston himself described his adversarial approach to Hyperallergic in 2016. “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 … 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.”