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Billy Al Bengston shows his softer side in a show curated by his wife, Wendy Al

January 21, 2011 |  3:47 pm

BillyandWendyOn Thursday night the legendarily colorful artist Billy Al Bengston celebrated the opening of a retrospective of his watercolors at some longtime friends' restaurant — the Santa Monica landmark Michael's.

Curated by his wife, Wendy Al, and displayed throughout three rooms upstairs from the dining room, the show features 49 pieces, many of which have not been seen by the public before.

“It’s sweet,” said Al, blushing, about how it feels to curate her husband’s work.

“It’s special to me because it’s fun working with someone like her,” said Bengston who is known for micromanaging every aspect of a show down to the carpet. He had to learn to let Al do her work. “Besides if you get mean to her, you get slaughtered."

“It’s the Japanese silent axe,” said Al, who is Japanese and was dressed in a girlish flowered skirt with her thick black hair cut in sharp angles around her face.

“It’s very heavy,” said Bengston, his blue eyes glinting, his striped collar popped and a white hat perched jauntily on his white hair.

Friends and colleagues of Bengston’s — Chris Burden, Analia Saban, Drew Heitzler, Laddie John Dill, Guy Dill, Gwynn Murril, Tony Berlant, Charles Arnoldi, Astrid Preston, Peter Alexander and Don Bachardy — mingled at the opening. The actress Blythe Danner was also there, as was Gerald Casale of the new-wave band Devo.

Also in attendance? A fair-sized group of people who attend Pilates class with the trim, 76-year-old Bengston.

“We love him, he’s brilliant,” exclaimed Ann Benjamin Franklin, a fellow Pilates student. Her friend Jane Kennedy, who owns the beauty shop Palmetto on Montana Avenue, said she's known Bengston for 40 years. He used to call her “Jane in the neck” -- not, on its face, the most flattering of nicknames.

Although not a traditional gallery show, the exhibit presented a softer side of Bengston, who is famous for spray-painting on dented aluminum and using the controversial chevron symbol at the center of many of his works. Abstract images of hearts — another of Bengston’s signature motifs — were very much present. Some took the form of calla lily silhouettes, other rose like round, red suns from the bottom of a page, and a group of them blushed daintily from behind veils of soft, white fabric.

In the earthy atmosphere upstairs from the restaurant, Bengston’s work was free to breathe. The painter Kim McCarty, wife of Michael’s chef and owner Michael McCarty, manages the salon and regularly stages exhibits there. Past shows have included drawings by Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode and artwork by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. The McCartys have been friends with Bengston since 1979 so Al decided to showcase work from that year to the present and named the show “Billy Al by Wendy Al.”

As guests mingled, sipping cocktails and wine, Kim McCarty happily surveyed the scene, pointing out that Bengston and Al had chosen to hang some of the pieces in unusual places like on top of doorways and above mirrors.

“Billy has so much work that so many people have not seen, so it’s nice to get it out there,” she said, adding, “These hot guys from the '60s, this is their moment again in a big way.”

Up-and-coming artists agree. “He’s an idol,” painter David Phillips said after meeting Bengston at the show. 

--Jessica Gelt

Photo: Billy Al Bengston and Wendy Al. Credit: Terry Case