Known for his eccentric personality, flock of famous artists he calls friends, and wildly experimental geometric paintings, Billy Al Bengston is currently the subject of a much-anticipated retrospective featuring 30 years of his beloved moon paintings at Hollywood’s trendy Various Small Fires Gallery.
Captivated by the seas of stars and luminous moonscapes he witnessed while on a motorcycle trip down the breathtaking Baja Peninsula, Bengston began capturing this incandescent starlight on canvas. He debuted his first moon painting collection at Santa Monica’s James Corcoran Gallery in 1987. The artist has since added to that original series over the years, but never before have they all been displayed together, making this exhibition an incredibly rare opportunity for fans of the artist.
Against broad swaths of speckled skies, Bengston’s full moons of gossamer-thin, acrylic paint in diamond white, jade green, and rose radiate with a subtle inner glow. Between the gestural and spiral brushwork of his backgrounds and moons, these paintings feature a palpable dynamic aura. In contrast to all of this movement, we also see static bands of opaque, unmixed shades, such as red, blue, and green criss-crossing each other in the foregrounds, giving these compositions a geometric feel. This blend of the natural and the man-made offers us a unique, thought-provoking vision of the heavens.
Indeed, Bengston has long adored this formula as he also delicately portrayed silhouettes of iris flowers among overlapping colorful circles in his 1960s and 70s Dracula series. These feminine works also somehow perfectly harmonize with his more traditionally masculine motorcycle-inspired pieces. Epitomizing the laid-back, California aesthetic with his motorcycle and surfer lifestyle, he often included those elements into his paintings with the depiction of bike parts. Interestingly, these pieces of machinery were depicted in a radiating, geometrical Tantra style, just like his stars and moons in the Various Small Fires collection.
Skyrocketing to fame on the Los Angeles art scene in the 1950s, this Kansas native soon fell into prominent circle of fellow artists through his regular showings at the iconic Ferus Gallery. He was able to secure this coveted opportunity by bumping into famed Ferus co-founder and assemblage sculptor Ed Keinholz in Echo Park. Bengston began stopping by the gallery to chat, each time bringing Kienholz and Walter Hopps six-packs of beer.
He soon befriended and exhibited with Southern California legends, such as pop art printmaker Ed Ruscha, abstractionist Ed Moses, figurative painter John Altoon, minimalist sculptor Larry Bell, and abstract sculptor Peter Voulkos. He even studied under color field painter Richard Diebenkorn at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. With the help of his luminary colleagues, Bengston carved out his trademark masculine and feminine niches. Of his motorcycle-inspired work, he famously straddled a bike on the cover of a catalogue for a 1961 exhibition at Ferus and encouraged renowned feminist conceptual artist Judy Chicago to enroll in auto body school and adopt spray painting techniques in her pieces.
Bengston’s passion for depicting machinery in his work can be explained by his undying love for Pop art. He was first introduced to this style during the 1958 Venice Biennale. The then 24 year-old artist was instantly moved by Jasper Johns and his seminal American flag paintings, as well as other proto-Pop pieces. He could sense the shifting tide as Abstract-Expressionism’s popularity was dwindling. He craved a new spark, a new direction. Bengston soon adopted geometrical designs and repetition into his repertoire. Also. sumptuous color became one of his focuses. In this spirit of experimentation, he abandoned traditional oil paints in favor of sprayed layers of automobile lacquer to create a reflective, crystalline surface, working perfectly with his natural, geometric, and low-brow, commercial imagery.
Additionally, Bengston’s avant-garde experimentation does not just apply to his paintings. Over the years, he has cultivated a legendary persona that only adds to his oeuvre. Undoubtedly a wild spirit, he is known to be eloquent and effervescent with absolutely no hint of a mental filter. He revels in pushing the envelope with his salty language and bawdy jokes. Perhaps it is Kansas upbringing, but Bengston is unabashedly straightforward. He also has a better sense of style than most supermodels with his signature spiffy ensembles, including immaculately tailored leopard-skin patterned dinner jackets. Bengston’s entire body of work and aura is a giant middle finger to the polished pretentiousness of the art world, meaning that his progressive ethos was not always understood or appreciated. He once revealed in an interview that, “Practically everything I do takes ten years for people to get.” With this recent recognition of his brilliance, several of his older works have been re-staged, including this presentation of his moon paintings and a critically-praised 2010 replica of Bengston’s 1958 Ferus debut at Culver City’s Samuel Freeman Gallery.
In addition to his newfound popularity, Bengston has also exhibited all over the country over the years, including major solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Honolulu Museum of Art. Excitingly, he was included in the recent retrospective California Dreaming: Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston & Ed Ruscha at the New Britain Museum of Art in New Britain, CT. One can also find his work in such prestigious institutions as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Over the course of Bengston’s prolific career he has managed to do the seemingly impossible: merge his fascinations with machinery, nature, geometry, spirituality, consumerism, the masculine and the feminine, to create works of supreme beauty. This harmonious unity of ideas and forms is what makes It is the Moon Doggie such a treat for the senses.
Emily Nimptsch is a freelance arts and culture writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.