Billy Al Bengston

Billy Al Bengston

October, 2007

Los Angeles Times
By Holly Myers, Special to The Times
November 9, 2007

If, in the wake of any of the periodic tributes to L.A. art in the 1960s (there's one up now at LACMA), you've found yourself wondering whatever happened to Billy Al Bengston, his website offers this report: "Billy Al is retired, doing all the things one shouldn't do while retired. Eventually, he plans on having a show of all the things he didn't do while retired. And, he's building a studio in Victoria, British Columbia. But what for?"

"Billy Al Bengston," at the Patricia Faure Gallery, is presumably that show: a splendid presentation of new work that seriously underscores the irony in his use of the word "retired."

The artist, who moved from L.A. to Canada in 2004, appears in a photograph on the gallery's own website looking every bit the healthy Northwesterner: lime green fleece vest, blue corduroy shorts and tennis shoes, his compact figure slightly blurred as he passes in front of one of the show's largest paintings.

The blur is telling. With 47 works in all, ranging in size from 5 by 7 inches to more than 15 feet tall -- all but one dating from this year -- the show is an impressively energetic undertaking. Even the gallery has been reconfigured. The rear project-room has been fashioned into a square with a lower, skylighted ceiling and cream-colored floor, and the main space is bisected by a large raw-plywood wall and doorway -- a site-specific installation echoing a house shape that appears in several of the paintings.

The work is not a radical departure from earlier strains of Bengston's oeuvre, nor is it a simple rehashing of previous tropes. The impression, rather, is of a meditative continuum: a long career spent absorbed in the dynamics of surfaces.

The majority of paintings involve a single, centralized motif -- a heart in most cases, a leaf or (rather perplexingly) the silhouette of a gymnast in others -- typically framed in a nested progression of squares. The predominant technique is a sprayed application of pigment, with thick droplets of uneven sizes.

The mid-size pieces that open the show didn't, initially, stop me in my tracks. The tones are so mild-mannered as to suggest, at a glance, a doctor's office, and it's difficult to get around the banality of the heart motif (even if that's part of the point).

What did stop me were the half-dozen hanging scrolls -- most about 15 by 10 feet -- installed in the main space beyond the plywood wall. Initially created for the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar but apparently withheld in response to the recent upheaval in that country, the paintings evoke views of a night sky, with thin mists of color -- purples and blues, primarily -- floating across a black ground and a handful of planet-like spheres hovering in loosely triangular formations. Each painting, while suggesting a glimpse into infinity, also resembles a face.

The scale of the pieces alone is impressive, but the effect of encountering them in the enclosed space created by the wall -- free of the square frames that predominate within the smaller paintings but still feeling safely ensconced -- is thrilling.

The experience leaves one considerably more receptive to the subtleties of the smaller works: to the delicate variations in tone, for instance, the careful layering and the rigorous array of textural contrasts. Bengston often interrupts the pixilated fields of sprayed pigment with stenciled passages of thick, sensual brush strokes. He balances geometric effects against atmospheric ones, viscous against dry, metallic against matte, spontaneity against containment.

This is a "retirement," one gathers, of untiring exploration.