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Billy Al Bengston

Ten years later, he had his first retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—the youngest artist to ever earn that distinction. Bengston was also the first California artist to receive NEA and Guggenheim grants, he says. In spite of his prodigious success, he insists that not he but the late John Altoon was the star of the Ferus group. “John was the real man!” he says enthusiastically.

Born in Dodge City, Kansas, Bengston left for California at age 14. After attending high school, he studied ceramics with legendary ceramicist and teacher Peter Voulkos. However, he quickly realized that painters were more respected than ceramicists and made the requisite switch.

One of his best-known bodies of work contains renditions of chevrons, Native American symbols that also denote the military rank of sergeant. He explains that he began using the symbols as acts of rebellion during the Vietnam conflict and ensuing protests against it. It was a way to get into the face of both establishments—left as well as right, he says.

During that time, he also raced motorcycles, and the bikes inspired his use of shiny, spray-painted surfaces that also became a trademark for some time. While he compares racing to dancing, the former has shaped his work ethic. “Both racing and art take tenacity, talent, hard work, knowledge and skill,” he says. The step from chevrons to flowers and valentine hearts appears to be a long one, but then again, Bengston does things his way. With a Cheshire cat smile, he notes the sexiness of both.

A number of his canvases show conglomerations of abstract lines and symbols, some of which he describes as allusions to clowns (never mind that there is scant visual evidence of them). Bengston keeps his tongue in cheek both in painting and discussing his works.

At age 73, he is still somewhat rebellious. Ensconced in Venice, California—where he rides his bicycle, does Pilates and communes with his compatriots—he is still painting what he called in the beginning “The New World Order.” Nowadays, it consists of canvases covered with shiny, multi-colored layers of a vinyl-like substance that suggests a contemporary revisiting of his early work. While he still does show, he says that working comes first. “I’m not interested in consumer success. I am as good as I can get,” he reveals.