Billy Al Bengston, the artist whose geometric brand of West Coast, custom car culture influenced Pop art and helped establish L.A. Cool School at the Ferus Gallery, has died. He was 88.
Bengston died of natural causes at his Venice home on Sunday, according to his gallery, Various Small Fires.
Bengston came of age as an artist in the late 1950s, as part of a group of young West Coast contemporary art luminaries that included Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, and Larry Bell, and helped cement Walter Hopps’ Ferus Gallery’s legendary status as a counterculture hotbed on North La Cienega Boulevard.
With his basic, artistically direct, and repeated patterns, Bengston spoke the language of pop art at the time. His gleaming, thickly lacquered surfaces earned him the moniker “finish obsessive.”
His flamboyant demeanor, vivid fashion choices, and love of California custom car, motorcycle, and surf culture, however, came to define him as a person and an artist.
He had five solo exhibitions at Ferus Gallery, beginning with his debut in 1958, and once posed on a motorcycle on the cover of a Ferus brochure in 1961.
In the 1960s, he expanded his appreciation for modern metal with his critically renowned “Dento” series, which he made by whacking his aluminum paintings with a ball-peen hammer until the metal was satisfyingly dented, dinged, and rippled. This technique essentially put an end to any notions of an overly slick finish fetish.
Billy Al Bengston was born in 1934 in Dodge City, Kansas. Bengston’s family relocated to Los Angeles in 1948, and he instantly fell in love with the sun, the sea, the wide-open spaces, and the fantastic cars of the rapidly rising metropolis.
Bengston, a rebellious teen known for mixing good fun with a bad-boy attitude, was expelled from both Los Angeles City College and Otis Art Institute. He also studied painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland under Richard Diebenkorn.
Bengston flourished at Ferus, creating a name for himself in the heady days when Pop art and Abstract Expressionism were merging into something new, edgy, and unexpected.
Bengston appeared tailor-made for that period in history, and his legacy will be indelibly linked with an era when artistic and cultural anarchy prevailed and it was still possible, as Bengston was fond of pointing out, to create something fresh that referenced nothing other than itself.
He also made an effort to promote other musicians. Frank Gehry, who constructed Bengston’s 1968 LACMA retrospective installation, says Bengston “welcomed me in as an artist to his world when I was just starting out.” That was really important to me: I was welcomed into the family.”
“His death has left a great void in me,” his wife Wendy told The New York Times. “However, he belonged to everyone.”