“Stud”, an exhibition of Billy Al Bengston’s paintings at Venus over Manhattan Gallery this past November, afforded a unique opportunity to see the legendary West Coast painter in New York City. It is clearly a special moment for an artist, who is perhaps not as well known here. Spanning nearly seven decades in 24 paintings with the “B.S.A. Motorcycle” series from 1961 and a new group of Chevron paintings from 2016, “Stud” reveals not only Bengston’s consistent focus on his subject, but also his evolution as a painter.
Encircling the first room are 11 works from the early 60’s, each with a detailed representation of an individual motorcycle part surrounded by painted and sprayed borders that, when seen at a distance, form into isolated and floating orbs in glowing halos. Bengston’s love of the machine fills the room. The gallery feels like a bike repair haven with singular bike parts laying about — a gas tank, carburetor, back fender, and tachometer drive. One painting of the assembled motorcycle contextualizes the parts. The careful brushwork in silver and black of particular bike parts at the center of each painting allows the character of each to become legible and renders Bengston’s knowledge palpable. To the right of the entrance is an actual “B.S.A. motorcycle once raced by Bengston’s longtime friend and race coach, Aub LeBard”*, complete with shining chrome that reflects the gallery lighting. The combination of the bike and Bengston’s works borders not unwittingly on the fetishistic, yet Bengston’s painting deftly draws it back from that edge.
Gearbox (1961) seems like a machine fetus. Embedded in a gray form that feels like nothing so much as a womb here, it hovers, isolated on a pre-primed surface that has been treated with painted and sprayed yellows; its silver parts both ‘reach for’ and ‘receive’ in lifelike motions through organ-like channels. Close up Gearbox sets the focus to the machine’s details but, from further back, an oblong green rim gives volume to the halo’s glimmer and breathes life into the form. With a wholly unique sense of the sensual, Bengston heightens the sexual undertones of his motorcycle paintings and reveals an eroticism that comes as much through the emotion embedded in the haptic qualities of his surfaces as it does through his images.
In its manner of rendering detail, Gearbox recalls the painstaking nature of Warhol’s early hand painted pop masterpieces, yet here Bengston’s yellow fields expand and his strange anthropomorphic mechanism retracts to form the essential conflict that allows this painting to hold our rapt attention. It is noteworthy that Gearbox predates by several years Warhol’s 1963 Artnews interview where he famously states, “I want to be a machine”. A deep passion for racing bikes that serves as an inspiration for these works sets them at a remove from the advertising and cartoon-based Pop art of many of his contemporaries in the East.
The off symmetry of the central white star in Carburetor I (1961), partially and quickly over-painted in a bright deep yellow activates a grey whose purple halo is dancing in step with the sprayed bronze edge around the central form. All this emerges slowly, slower than we are used to in the digital world and in doing so it emanates a subtle warmth that seems like it could only ever happen once. The remarkable halos surrounding his images of machine parts elevate them to the status of icons, while the precisely painted components resonate Pop with a West Coast vibe.
A number of works in the series create a sensitive color aura with the spray paint’s diffusion, which in turn plays off the harder edges of the silver details in Bengston’s centrally located subject. Yet, in each, their unique and dynamic color interaction gives them a precise emotional resonance. While the metallic paint along with the use of spray paint brings you right into the bike shop with Bengston, and there is no doubt about the symbiotic relationship between these two aspects of Bengston’s professional life as both a motorcycle racer and painter, his work is more than a translation of this subculture’s imagery into a high art form as he moves from one mode of operation to another.
Spending time in the exhibition with Bengston’s quietly powerful works, many of his contemporaries come to mind. The circles and ovals surrounding his centralized images recall, for one, Kenneth Noland. The contrast distinguishes Bengston’s color sensibility and his varied application of paint, both of which work to generate tension on multiple levels as distinct from the centering calm of Noland’s works. The centralized subject is an approach that stayed with Bengston throughout his career and gave him space to develop color as a primary aspect of his work. In the two blue rooms comprising his current work from the “Chevron” series, the sensations one experiences reveal the mastery of Bengston’s color.
The largest piece in the room, “Blue Groove” (2016) is a spattered field of low key grey, with white and light-blue drops, arranged in a more or less evenly dense field in which a central oval of intense baby blue and matte green then levitates. The painting itself pushes towards a reading from a bird’s eye perspective and in this context it reads like an overview of the racetrack. The simple form allows color to do all the heavy lifting.
We know that color enters the eye more slowly than contrast, so if you can be still and let the fields of blue in, then Bengston has forced you to slow down and become sentient. It is eminently pleasurable.
There’s a story about Bengston as a young man that heightens the subtext of this adventure: When he’d finished working on the bike, Aub, his racing mentor, told him he could paint the B.S.A. any color he wanted as long as it was blue. Here, more than half a century later, Bengston has managed to evoke what feels like a full spectrum of color, even though the only color in the room is blue.
With the likely and unlikely combinations of his blues, Bengston can engage a wide circle of thoughts. The turquoise and ultramarine blue play off each other to heavenly effect in Backed In (1961) and elicit memories of the blues of Konya, Seville or other Islamic architectural and ceramic tile patterns. Each visitor, no doubt, will enter his or her own world of experience in the ambiance Bengston’s affords. Yet, Bengston has gotten somewhere with his color that goes beyond convenient associations; they are combinations that formally open up vast distances where his familiar chevron pattern often hovers like a mirage or disappears into the atmosphere. The patterns never take on too much importance, but serve as a signal for his well-known subject matter. Cleary it’s the journey into the mystery of blue that’s worth focusing on here. The steady unfolding of color that affects a constant shifting of depth offsets the static nature of symmetry and thwarts the tedium that could arise from the lack of variety in pictorial solutions that rely primarily on a centrally located square.
Aub 16 (2016) is a particularly striking combination of a deep translucent color in the range of a Paris or Helion blue – but not exactly either of those – and a pastel blue painted over a darker diagonal stripe around the edge. This simple yet precise relationship causes the field around the chevron to go deep, opening up a space where one could spend a good amount of time riffing on a subconscious wave and turn around an emotional tangle that has been haunting or painful. Across the room, the turbulent ground of Tiblin (2016) works to opposite effect, placing its turmoil in full view.
Bengston’s lifetime of experience is present in every decision. I can remember when I first laid eyes on a Bengston painting as a young artist, and it’s a pleasure now, so many years later, to discover the rewards his sustained concentration has wrought. While any number of artists become myopic and in their evolution search for refinement, Bengston has given us a gift in breathing open his broad horizons.
Joan Waltemath, Men/many (East 2 1,2,3,5,8…), 2014-16, Oil, aluminum, bronze, interference, glimmer, phosphorescent and florescent pigment on honeycomb aluminum panel, 39 ¼ x 18 ⅝ inches
Joan Waltemath is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. www.joanwaltemath.net
* gallery press release