Billy Al Bengston: Wooden you love this luncheon?
Back in 1971, Los Angeles Times food writer Rose Dosti asked Venice artist Billy Al Bengston to be part of a story about young celebrities, including some local artists, who enjoyed cooking. Sure, Bengston said. So Dosti and Mary Frampton -- a Times photographer noted for her fiery nature -- headed off to Bengston’s studio, where they expected to be served a lunch of Bengston’s favorite recipes, prepared by the artist.
Instead, Dosti and Frampton were presented with a meal made entirely of various types of wood, including such dishes as the mouthwatering Plank Steak, Sap du Jour and Aspen Fish Garni. Plates, table and flatware were also fashioned of wood, with wood chips, wood shavings and fresh leaves as attractive garnishes. Bengston appeared in a plaid shirt, jeans and boots and welcomed the stunned journalists to his “Lumberjack Luncheon.” Bengston's registrar, Penny Little Hawks, wore an appropriately folksy apron. UPDATE*: A previous post identified the woman in the apron as Bengston's wife, Wendy Al. Wendy tells us that she and Bengston were not yet married in 1971. Culture Monster is of course far too young to remember.
As Bengston tells it, he decided to go with wood instead of food because “I was not a chef, and I only do things for fun -- and this didn’t seem to be any fun. Plus I didn’t want to be responsible for any recipes because I don’t use them.”
So, partly driven by his rejection of the chef’s hat and partly by the movement among artists at the time to eschew synthetic products and recycle where possible, he made lunch using recycled wood pieces as well as collecting leaves, branches and such that tended to fall from local trees during high winds. The only edible portion of the meal Bengston offered was a bottle of retsina.
Dosti was delighted by the meal. “He said it was all ecologically sound,” Dosti says. “What could be better than a wood lunch? It was absolutely divine. I saw it as not only a sculpture in its own right but an artistic performance, in costume and everything.”
But the wooden meal went entirely against Frampton’s grain. “In those days, Mary was a force to be reckoned with; she was very intimidating as a photographer because she was opinionated about everything,” Dosti recalls of Frampton, who died in 2007. “She took umbrage. She said it was a joke on us, and she wasn’t going to do it.”
Dosti says Frampton’s refusal to shoot the meal led to a shouting match between the photographer and the artist, with both pounding on the table accusing each other of hypocrisy when it came to their chosen professions. “I was speechless; I was just laughing,” Dosti says.
Eventually, Dosti persuaded Frampton to start shooting and wrote a tongue-in-cheek story about “Lumberjack Luncheon” for The Times. Unfortunately, the food editor couldn’t find a place for it because it wasn’t about, well, food. Nor could the art section find a home for the article, so it was never printed.
But “Lumberjack Luncheon” lives on: Shortly after the luncheon with Dosti and Frampton, a curator from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art visited the studio, heard the story and requested that the piece be part of an exhibition at his museum. “Lumberjack Luncheon” also has been exhibited at the MOCA annex at the Pacific Design Center.
Those who missed “Lumberjack Luncheon” have another chance to sample the cuisine: The artwork is on display at the Samuel Freeman Gallery at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station through Aug. 29 as part of the group show “Mostly Sculpture (damn it).” And although there’s no predicting how photographers might react in 2009, this is one steak dinner that could never offend a vegetarian -- although we hear the meat is a little tough.
-- Diane Haithman
Photos: Top: Billy Al Bengston’s "Lumberjack Luncheon." Bottom: Recently, “Lumberjack Luncheon” became performance art as wife Wendy Al interacted with pooch Foxy. Credit: Katrina Mohn / Samuel Freeman Gallery