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Venice is losing a bit of its cool

August 08, 2004|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

At the entrance to a brick building in Venice, painter Billy Al Bengston greeted two younger artists before ascending the stairs to his studio.

Bengston, who turned 70 in June, has a gray buzz cut and clear blue eyes. Bum knees make walking a pain, surfing an impossibility, but he scaled the stairs rapidly, with little support from the banister.

At the top, he took a few waltz steps, holding an invisible partner. "This used to be a dance studio," he said, finishing a twirl, gesturing to the room. On the wall: paintings hung shoulder to shoulder, a visual diary of his life, beginning in the early '60s.

Then, Bengston was one of the hottest artists in town, admired and envied in equal measure by a large group of artist friends. His first solo show -- at 24 -- took place in 1958 at the Ferus Gallery, then emerging as the premiere L.A. venue for contemporary art. At 34, he had his first retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1988 he had a second retrospective.

But by the early '90s, Bengston had nearly vanished from the art scene, showing intermittently and then, for long stretches, not at all. His friends developed theories: Bengston had given up on the art world, or the art world had given up on Bengston; he was a victim of changing sensibilities, or he had opted out of a corrupt system.

Bengston himself gave contradictory answers. "Billy Al is retired and in his retirement, doing all the things one shouldn't do while retired," his website said.

Now, a show of old and new work, ceramics and paintings opens today at the Cartelle Gallery in Marina Del Rey.

The show is a farewell to Los Angeles. Billy Al Bengston, contrarian, is leaving town.

Lifeguard from Kansas

A quintessential West Coast artist who became synonymous with L.A. cool, Bengston was born in Dodge City, Kan., but came west in 1948. He worked as a lifeguard and studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland before joining the ceramics workshop run by Peter Voulkos at the Los Angeles County Art Institute in 1956 (now Otis College of Art and Design).

"He was the only guy I'd met who wanted to be an artist," said Kenneth Price, who met Bengston on Doheny State Beach in the '50s. The two remained friends as the L.A. art scene came to life in the early '60s. "He was really talented."

When artist Ed Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard with Walter Hopps in 1957, they created an incubator for young L.A. artists and a gallery that, only a few years later, introduced local audiences to work by New York artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. By the time Bengston showed there, he had dropped school and turned from ceramics to painting.

"I wasn't going to pursue any form of employment that entailed having to report to someone," said Bengston, who had given himself until his 25th year to make what he considered a work of art. "Not a bunch of stuff, but something I thought was a contribution, and if I didn't do that, I would pursue something else." He was 24 when he made something he felt held up -- a blue and red lacquer on Masonite painting. "It was getting close," he said.

In the early '60s, Bengston began to race motorcycles professionally and found inspiration in the bikes, incorporating them as a subject.

"Whatever he wanted to do came really easily to him," said fellow painter Chuck Arnoldi.

Bengston started using spray paint, creating layered and metallic surfaces. In 1965, he began his Cantos Indentos series -- also known as the Dentos -- dented and spray-painted sheets of aluminum.

He developed a couple of "signatures": The iris (named Dracula by Price, who thought it resembled the count) and the chevron or sergeant stripes.

"Although critics have tried to align his art with various schools, from pop art to p&d -- pattern and decorative painting -- Bengston has eluded specific classification," wrote Karen Tsujimoto in the catalog for his 1988 retrospective. "No movement has convincingly described his work because its core has never been art history or theory. Bengston's art, while seemingly eclectic, is firmly circumscribed by a singular refusal to be categorized."

But it was influential. "I've learned a lot from Billy, as a colorist, as an inventor, as a talented artist," said Frank Gehry, a longtime friend who made the installation for Bengston's first retrospective -- a series of furnished rooms in which to see the paintings.

"It was a really tough statement, borderline Kienholz," Gehry said. Unknown to Bengston, Gehry had a wax statue made of the painter. The figure, leather-clad on a motorcycle, stood at the entrance.

"It freaked him out," Gehry said of the statue, which he still has. But "it said everything about him, where it all came from, the sergeant stripes and the whole aesthetic."

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