Billy Al Bengston (B. 1934) Lester, 1961

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Lot 42
Billy Al Bengston
(B. 1934)
Lester, 1961

Sold for US$ 548,075 inc. premium
Property from the Denman Collection, Seattle
Billy Al Bengston (B. 1934)
Lester, 1961

signed and dated 'Bengston 1961' (on the reverse)
oil, polymer and lacquer on Masonite

48 x 46 1/2 in.
121.9 x 118.1 cm.


  • Provenance
    Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

    Los Angeles, Ferus Gallery, Billy Al Bengston, 12 November-9 December 1962
    Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Billy Al Bengston, 25 November 1968-12 January 1969, no. 19, illustrated in color

    Billy Al Bengston has been a powerful character and influential force in contemporary art since the 1950s. Originally from Kansas, Bengston attended several art schools in California and studied with Richard Diebenkorn and Peter Voulkos, both of whom were of particular influence. Bengston studied ceramics as well as painting and became close friends with another revolutionary young artist, Ken Price. In the late 1950s, he was introduced to the paintings of Craig Kauffman and Jasper Johns. He has credited seeing these other artists moving away from the abstract expressionist cannon by producing new work with centralized compositions, repetition and recognizable content as providing a spark which Bengston used to create experimental and avant-garde new paintings, like Skinny's 21 and Lester in the early 1960s.

    Los Angeles was a hotbed for innovation in contemporary art in the late 1950s, 1960s and beyond. Bengston was a primary member of an intensely creative group of artists and curators, including Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Wallace Berman, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Ed Moses, John Altoon and Walter Hopps. This group was brought together by and centered around the legendary Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. Bengston began showing with the gallery right from the start, he had an abstract canvas in the debut show in 1957, and five solo shows from 1958 to 1963.

    Starting in 1960, following an extended trip to Europe, Bengston radically pushed his artistic focus away from more traditional abstract paintings and towards industrial paints and recognizable, yet often mysterious imagery. Although a surfer since shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, it was in the late 1950s that Bengston connected with his enthusiasm for motorcycles. He bought his first motorcycle during this period and became serious about racing. His love of both surfing and motorcycles as sports and subcultures informed the dramatic shift in his painting (his 1961 solo show at Ferus featured a body of work based on motorcycle imagery). Bengston created his own lexicon of forms and symbols, including the stacked chevrons, iris flowers, hearts and target/circular forms, which have continued to appear in his oeuvre ever since. Today, these emblems have become instantly recognizable as his work.

    Bengston's breakthrough paintings in the early 1960s placed him at the center of the artistic vanguard and embody Los Angeles' contributions to contemporary art. Motorcycle imagery and surf influence, along with use of centralized and repetitive compositions that are so often relied upon by signage and advertisements, associated Bengston with West Coast Pop. His use of techniques and materials drawn from custom-car and motorcycle culture that created the polished surfaces he achieved with spray lacquer also connected him to Finish Fetish.

    Lester is a seminal example from this significant time. The present lot features the militaristic chevron motif as an anchoring icon at the center of a mandala-like target composition. The painting's luscious surface pulsates in psychedelic colors, creating a mesmerizing and almost existential viewing experience. Lester showcases the elements of Bengston's signature style at the moment of its inception. This painting was included in a solo show during the Ferus Gallery's height in 1962 and then again in the artist's important 1968 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (for which Ed Ruscha designed the exhibition catalogue and Frank Gehry designed the installation plan). The present lot has been in the same private collection since prior to the LACMA exhibition and has been rarely seen publicly since.

    In the 1968 exhibition catalogue, LACMA's first curator of twentieth century art, Maurice Tuchman, noted that Bengston 'has been instrumental in creating a special esthetic look which poignantly reflects the style of existence peculiar to Los Angeles, but certainly his influence has not been limited to this area. Bengston has inspired artists in many parts of the United States and abroad, especially with his successful experimentation using automobile lacquers and spray techniques.' (J.Monte, Billy Al Bengston, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968, p. 5).

    Bengston's work is included in the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Chicago Art Institute; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Honolulu Museum of Art, among others.
Billy Al Bengston (B. 1934) Lester, 1961
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