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Billy Al Bengston

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Billy Al Bengston
Contemporary (post 1945) Painting
(Dodge City, KS, July 7, 1934 – 10/11/2022, Venice, CA)

Born in Dodge City, Kansas, he became a part of the 1960s California Pop Art movement and pioneered the use of industrial and spray paint techniques in his fine art painting. He combined this method with symmetrical formal images in centralized composition. He became known for work that created stunning, dazzling optical effects. He moved to California in 1948 with his family and associated with sculptor Kenneth Price, painter Richard Diebenkorn, and ceramist Peter Voulkos. He attended several art schools in northern and southern California for relatively brief periods of time. This was a period in California artistic history where the artists were forging their own path, seemingly oblivious to any thing going on in New York. Few museums welcomed their work, and so they banded together and did their own exhibitions. Japanese artist Sabro Hasegawa taught Bengston an intuitive approach to painting; Diebenkorn taught him how to work with paint, and Peter Voulkos excited him with the energy of ceramics. Bengston later rejected ceramics in 1957 because of what he perceived as lack of money-making potential. He spent six months in Europe in 1958 and 1959 and was strongly influenced by several artists exhibited there at the time including Tintoretto's composition and the centralized images and flat surfaces of Jasper Johns. Flying home from Europe, he saw in a magazine a chevron or sargeant stripe motif, which he incorporated from 1960 into his paintings as a personal insignia instead of a signature. Previously he had used hearts. He had his first one-man show at age 24 at the Ferus Gallery, a mecca for young artists in Los Angeles and won instant acclaim, and he first showed his chevron paintings in 1962 at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. He is a gregarious, witty man who loved his life style as an artist and combined the hard work of that profession with athletics, travel, motorcycle riding and scuba diving. He was also an early environmentalist with a particular interest in the ocean and sunlight, images that he incorporated into many of his paintings. His titles often reflected his wit and sense of whimsy. He arbitrarily assigned titles after completing the work, such as his "Dodge City," in the Phoenix Art Museum collection, which is one of his chevron paintings and bears little relationship to his birthplace.

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