Christopher Knight, L.A. Times: Billy Al Bengston

Billy Al Bengston at Samuel Freeman Gallery

By Christopher Knight
Feb. 19, 2010

Studio slang that expressed effusive approval in the Abstract Expressionist 1950s, whether swaggering or sentimental, became literal subject matter for numerous artists in the 1960s. Jasper Johns was a leading practitioner. For instance, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, his infamous "Painting With Two Balls" – a pair of actual spheres inserted into a canvas vigorously brushed with gestural color – lampooned the era's machismo posturing.

Billy Al Bengston is another artist who took slang at its pictorial word. At Samuel Freeman Gallery, an approximate re-creation of Bengston's second painting exhibition, held at L.A.'s Ferus Gallery 50 years ago this week, brings the strategy into focus.

In keeping with the season, it features a group of works whose central motif is a valentine. Now, that's a painting with heart.

Bengston had been impressed with Johns' American flags and other proto-Pop paintings during a 1958 European encounter at the Venice Biennale, when he was 24. Stuck in a gestural painting rut, like many American artists as the Ab Ex decade was drawing to a close, Bengston wanted out. The marvelous Ferus/Freeman exhibition shows him working his way into new terrain.

Geometry helped, toppling gesture from its pinnacle. The show includes two small canvases that feature a cruciform shape in the center of a square, its linear periphery piled high with an inch of thick oil paint, like wintry snowdrifts. Eight more paintings on paper sport cruciform shapes, some with tentative hearts beginning to emerge.

A monumental canvas, 6½ feet high and 7½ feet wide, nests a series of Josef Albers-type squares inside a gunmetal gray field of lightly brushed paint. Confetti-like daubs of bright color frame the canvas, while a crimson line and checkerboards of yellow-ocher and white or black and blue frame the big, bifurcated heart in the center. The heart and its background are painted four shades of green.

Titled "Big Hollywood," it's the mother ship for a host of subsequent Bengston paintings that take the first names of movie stars. "Sophia" (as in Loren) is a small but voluptuous canvas whose complementary colors of blue and orange ignite optical sparks in the central heart.

Bengston's geometric formats and repetition of imagery seem designed to free up the paintings from the nagging problem of subject matter. Instead, they're material meditations on luminous, sensual color.

The works are installed in a faithful reconstruction of the original Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, an exceedingly modest footprint within Freeman Gallery and complete with a dropped-ceiling of acoustic tiles, clumsy lighting and brown twill carpeting. Proprietor Walter Hopps provided Ferus' intellectual core, and seeing Bengston's reconstructed show reminded me of Hopps' commitment to the quixotic genius, Wallace Berman, whose aesthetic motto was "Art is Love is God." Bengston's Hollywood valentines enfold that sentiment in surprising ways.

A second partial reconstruction in the gallery, following installations of Bengston's more flatly decorative recent work, assembles eight beautiful lacquer and polyester resin paintings on squares of aluminum. Called "dentos," they're folded, spindled and mutilated, some by a good whacking with a ball-peen hammer.

Why beat up a painting surface, which is about to have luscious pigment poured all over it? Well, given the vaguely condescending term "finish fetish" being applied to so much sleek, 1960s L.A. art, banging up the object was one good way to subsume preciosity.

So was showing the "dentos" in a dark room by candlelight, as they are here and were originally in 1970 at Rico Mizuno Gallery. Claims of mystical aura are undercut, art's reigning period-cliché of California sunshine is neatly unplugged and sensuous perception is italicized. That's called a hat-trick.

– Christopher Knight