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Art review: Billy Al Bengston at Samuel Freeman Gallery

February 19, 2010 |  6:30 am

400.bengston492 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.

Bengston sophia 1960 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.

Bengston_installation008 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

Samuel Freeman Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through March 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.samuelfreeman.com.

Images: Billy Al Bengston, "Big Hollywood" (1960); "Sophia" (1960); "Dentos" installation. Courtesy of Samuel Freeman Gallery.

Comments () | Archives (6)

Yawn. Too bad BAB's art isn't up to the level of his fame.

The reviewer believing ”toppling gesture from its panicle” is something to be commended. I agree if the artist’s goal is to strip art down to nothing, which it has long been the achieved by contemporary art. Gesture whether in a line of action in the figure or in bold abstract expressionism is the key to art having life. If art has life, it becomes trite and coy, cracking open the door to feeling the passion of an artist, the hell with that sentimental nonsense.
A deliberate jettisoning of skill sets to make art achievable by anyone is true egalitarianism. I feel ashamed by my discriminatory skills, hopefully I’ll have a stroke soon and finally do seeming honest with the help of masking tape and total lack of control getting me finally on the path of nothing.

My wife and i stumbled onto an opening of BaB's "art a year or so ago. At Begamnot station, he seemed more a Forrest Gump than anything, amazed he actually had fans, mostly old hippie intellectuals, and made a lving from it. i saw no malice or greed in the guy, just an old beach bum. kinda funny.

But his 'art" was identical asphalt encrusted panels, obviously created for him, then stenciled heart shapes, and a human or other form within it, with sprinkled donut candy flecks of color over the surface. It is trucker mudflap art. Harmless, meaningless, skilless, stuff. Great at garage sales. And in garages where guys hang out drinking beer and watching the game on an old BandW tv's. A new age dartboard.

As PT Barnum said, one is born every minute.

art collegia delenda est

Mr. Knight has shown that the ball-peen hammer is mightier than the sword. A hat trick is three points scored in a row, which in this case might be called a 'tri-CK.' Looks like someone got to third base, made a three-point basket, or scored three hockey goals in a row. Another performance like that, and Late Renoir's "Woman in a White Hat" will have to hand it to him.

A hat trick is three goals in one game by the same player,a cute triCK by CK and you Cate, been busy havent you? BaBs color is weak as hell, no chordal or modal depth and richness, just sits there lifelessly. Flat with donut sprinkles on top. Eye candy, literally, if only one could eat them.

And the candles ARE religious, its what one does when one says a prayer in a catholic chapel, one lights a candle and places it before the icon. these are no icons, except to the Meism of the last few decades, one california excelled at. If not as rigorous mentally as others, which is a saving grace. As those others are quite self absorbed, these are just California flaky, sugar coated wall paper. All surface, no depth. how appropriate. And tuly the end of the age. Thank God.

art collegia delenda est

"Eye candy, literally, if only one could eat them."

Sorry, Donald. I gave up sweets for Lent. And yes, I've been busy tearing down my "flabby id" and getting that superego in super shape.

CK mentions four shades of green in the heart shown at the top of the article. I was wondering if white and black are also considered "colors"?

In response to your comment about religious candles, DF, when I say a prayer in a Catholic chapel or church I don't always light a votive. Sometimes I do, but it's not a prerequisite for spiritual contemplative prayer. Some people view candles in a chapel as a symbol of the light and presence of Christ. There are lots of different interpretations, so please don't think I'm trying to sic religious dogma on you.

And that reminds me of the article about Martin Sheen on Culture Monster recently that mentions him lighting a couple of votive candles in church. The article quotes him as saying that he paid for two candles, so two prayers could be said. That's very old-school and a skewed way of thinking about prayer. It needs some clarification. I don't want to put him down for it--I respect Martin Sheen very much--but monetary donations are suggested to help with the cost of upkeep in the chapel, not to validate the effectiveness of the prayer.


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