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Billy Al Bengston papers, circa 1940s-1989, bulk 1960-1988

Biographical Note

Billy Al Bengston was born in Dodge City, Kansas on June 7, 1934. After moving back and forth from Kansas to California multiple times, he and his family settled in Los Angeles in 1948. While attending the Manual Arts High School, Bengston became interested in art, especially ceramics. After a brief stint at Los Angeles Junior College, Bengston worked as a beach attendant at Doheny State Beach. While working there he met fellow surfer and future ceramicist Kenneth Price, who became one of Bengston's closest friends. In 1953, he reenrolled in Los Angeles Junior College to study ceramics. For the next four years he attended both the California College of Arts and Crafts and the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design). At these institutions he studied with Richard Diebenkorn, Sabro Hasegawa, Nathan Oliveira, and Peter Voulkos.
Around 1957, Bengston shifted his emphasis from ceramics to painting, and became affiliated with the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, founded that same year by Edward Kienholz and Walter Hopps. Bengston's first solo exhibition was held at the Ferus Gallery in 1958, and a second followed in 1960. At this time Bengston began to work with Pop icons combined with Color Field abstractions. His early bold paintings often featured symmetrical strong color compositions with a central image of a valentine, star, cross, chevron, or iris. The irises he called "draculas," after Kenneth Price remarked that they resembled Dracula flying through a window. He first showed his chevron paintings in 1962 at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. In the early 1960s, Bengston extended his imagery to the California subculture and created paintings of leisure time activities, focusing on motorcycles, racing, and scuba diving - his own interests as well.
Throughout his career, Bengston experimented with technique and materials. He experimented with automobile lacquer and spray painting techniques associated with car customization. He also used non-traditional surfaces, such as masonite and aluminum. In 1965, Bengston began creating paintings on sheets of aluminum into which he hammered dents and sometimes bent and buckled; these subsequently came to be known as "dentos." Along with painting, Bengston has also created watercolors, ceramics, and furniture. He was also one of the artists selected by Carol and Roy Doumani to design their home.
Bengston first visited Hawaii in 1974, and after several subsequent trips, established a second studio there in 1979. The work Bengston created in the following years was characterized by the use of tropical colors and representational images of running figures, airplanes, and the moon. In 1988, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston organized a retrospective entitled "Billy Al Bengston: Paintings of Three Decades," which traveled to the Oakland Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Museum of Art, Honolulu. Bengston also completed several years as an art instructor and lecturer at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and The University of California at Los Angeles. Bengston continues to create and exhibit new work.