Mary Agnes Donahue: Billy Al
When I arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, a place I found foreign and alarming, the most glamorous and exciting group of people to know were in the art world. The movie stars came to them. A group of artists had emerged and connected, tightly knit to each other and place, anarchic and independent, they produced work so original it quickly acquired a national and international reputation. Their ideas were abstract but expressed through creating an object and exploring the use of materials ranging from fiberglass to light. They were hands on. The names have lasted - Price, Kienholz, Kauffman, Altoon, Moses, Bell, Irwin, Ruscha, Goode, Alexander, Wheeler, McCracken, Graham, Davis, and on and on. Billy-Al Bengston led the pack.
On my second day of work at the County Art Museum a photograph of all the prominent Los Angeles artists was being taken on the steps of the museum. I was wearing a dress. Billy-Al’s first words to me were ‘You look attractive in that ugly dress.’ I was flattered. He noticed my dress. I never wore it again and we remained friends for forty-six years.
Which brings me to Billy-Al Bengston the personality - a mass of fascinating contradictions. Highly articulate, he has no filter from his brain to his mouth and manages to deliver a compliment and an insult in the same sentence; a man capable of great loyalty and love he can cling to a long-standing grudge with passionate commitment for years; in his youth a serial boyfriend he is one of those rare men who actually likes women and has them for friends; brilliantly talented, intelligent and cultured he’s also a cracker from Kansas with more style than Coco Chanel. He arrived at my 40th birthday party wearing a beautifully tailored, Italian, leopard-skin patterned dinner jacket - with the price tag still dangling from the sleeve. I believe it was a commentary on some of the other guests who had a fatal weakness for labels.
Handsome and funny, motorcycle racer and surfer, during those heady days Billy-Al was bold and shrewd about the business side of art and had a charm that drew people in and made the art world the place to be. He also gave the best parties in town - there would always be a sprinkling of movie stars present to shed their lovely glitter over a room alive with incredible talent, including his life-long friends Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy and Frank Gehry.
Billy-Al the artist is a completely different kettle of fish. In his studio, Billy-Al the personality doesn’t exist, it is removed as if it is a finely crafted costume and that is when he is completely himself, alone in the room with his own strange mind and eye, nothing behind him, nothing in front, and no agenda other than to keep his work moving toward something unknown. He goes in looking for something he hasn’t found.
It’s as impossible to describe a work of art as it is to describe music - the former has to be seen, the latter heard, words are their poor cousins. His work speaks for itself. I do know his early influences were two great artists - Peter Voulkos and Sabro Hasegawa - as well as a legendary motorcycle racer, Aub LeBard. Billy-Al would have to explain that connection, but I suspect it has to do with brilliance and focus.
Most people start with a question and look for the answer. Artists don’t. They start with the answer and look for the question. When you’re starting out that’s easier to do. There’s nothing behind so your ideas explode without impediment, and the first blush of success is a fire-starter. Sustained success is harder to shut out of the room. Everyone’s expectations and investments are knocking on the door, trying to get in.
People are still knocking on the door and Billy-Al still has all the qualities he had as a young man, but as time passes people and times change, the parties hold less interest and glamour is given its notice to move on to other rooms. The group that was once essential disperses - some move away, some die, some stop speaking to each other over slights they can’t even remember. For an artist, what’s left is what was always most essential - his work and being alone in his studio with his own strange mind and eye, nothing behind, nothing in front, hunting down the elusive and a way to turn it into an object. That’s what Billy-Al Bengston does for a living.
Meanwhile, there is upstairs on Mildred Avenue in Venice, a rambling brick building that once housed the Venice News, where Billy-Al works and lives with his wife Wendy-Al (no, they are not descendants of a Caliph). Walking into the main room through a rabbit warren of rooms that are perpetually being reconfigured and rebuilt by Billy-Al and his aide de camp, Luis, is a visual King Solomon’s Mine. Wherever you turn it’s a feast for the eyes. As you are handed the perfect martini in the perfect martini glass by a man who doesn’t drink your eyes are suddenly stopped by a painting you hadn’t seen before. It has a vibrancy that grabs you and won’t let go. It’s clearly one of Billy-Al’s, no one uses color the way he does, yet it’s completely different from the work you know. You wonder when did he do that series, how did that slip past me? So you ask “When did you do that?” He answers “Yesterday.”
Inside King Solomon’s Mine, hung beside Billy-Al’s old work and new work, are paintings by Craig Kauffman (he claims a particular one makes him laugh because it’s so brilliant and crazy), John Altoon, Don Bachardy, Ed Ruscha, and on, and on. Then your eye stumbles on to several Robert Graham bronzes, a John McCracken yellow nailed plank, a Doug Wheeler globe, early Ken Price cups, a Tony Berlant house. In another room you see an exquisite vase with odd wormy shapes cracking through the sophisticated glaze and you realize, of course, that’s not just a vase. You ask, “Who did that?” “Oh, Kenny did that in 1958.” Everywhere you turn there is something to look at that washes over you like clear water after a long walk in the desert.
And then you begin to notice that every chair, every table, every kitchen utensil was chosen not simply for function, which is important to Billy-Al, but because it has an esthetic integrity, down to kitchen knives and his Chinese spider, a cheap metal scoop used in noodle restaurants. Many of these perfect things are bought in the Japanese dollar store. And in spite of everything being perfect, the rooms are not decorated, they’re spaces for wonderful things to inhabit and they’re lived in. That’s when you realize he’s more interested in the sublime than perfection. Perfection is stiff and overworked. The sublime is perfection with warts.
Eventually you are brought to the perfect table (yes, for a while he designed furniture, but it isn’t furniture, it’s art) and dinner is served. A deft hand in the kitchen with impeccable taste in food, my friend the cracker from Kansas, wearing clothes exploding with color (as a child his schoolmates nicknamed him Rainbow), emerges holding a steaming bowl of spaghetti covered with - hotdog sauce? Yes. It is hotdog sauce. For a moment you’re left speechless - are marshmallows next? Then you dig in and it’s the best pasta you’ve ever eaten in your life, you want to call Mario Battali to pass on the recipe, but you’re just too busy eating, talking, falling silent and looking at great art.
Looking, looking, looking. You forget the pasta and give in to that feast for the eyes, you’re transformed by what you see - Billy-Al’s work, this one’s work, that one’s work, all on display because as much as he loves to paint, like any great artist he loves to look.
And while your back is turned, talking, sinking into something you can’t stop looking at, fickle glamour slinks back in, accepting it’s just a servant to something finer, and once again casts its spell. No matter how hard he tries, Billy-Al just can’t send it packing.
March 11, 2014