May 19, 2013


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Lot 200: Billy Al Bengston

Lot 200: Billy Al Bengston

Count Dracula at the Chessboard

Oil on canvas

Signed and dated "Bengston/1960" upper center; retains Westside Jewish Community Center and partial Los Angeles County Museum of Art loan labels verso

Canvas: 18" x 16"; Frame: 18.5" x 16.5"

LAMA would like to thank the Billy Al Bengston Studio for their assistance in cataloging this work

Photograph of Count Dracula at the Chessboard on display in the Frank Gehry designed exhibition, "Billy Al Bengston," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968, Photograph Courtesy of Billy Al Bengston Laboratory

Provenance: Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, California;
Betty Asher, Los Angeles, California (acquired from the above, 1962);
Thence by descent

Exhibited: "Group Show," Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, June 20-July 16, 1960; "Selections from the LM Asher Family Collection," The Art Gallery, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, January 20-February 23, 1964; "Billy Al Bengston," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, November 26, 1968-January 12, 1969

Illustrated: Monte, James. Billy. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968. #9, np.

Literature: Selections from the LM Asher Family Collection. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1964. #6.

Estimate: $15,000 - $20,000
Price Realized: $46,875
Inventory Id: 5635

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Preceding his depictions as Los Angeles’ own motorcycle-racing, rogue artist in Ferus Gallery and LACMA exhibition catalogues, Kansas-born Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934) had been discharged from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1955. Under the faculty of Richard Diebenkorn, Billy’s training was curtailed due to his aggressive advancement in ceramics and more so, rapid depletion of the school’s clay reserve. By 1956 Bengston had enrolled at Otis Art Institute to study under master ceramicist, Peter Voulkos. The roster of students under Voulkos’ training in 1956 also included Billy’s friend and fellow surfer, artist Ken Price, whom he had met surfing on the job as a beach attendant in 1953. True to his boisterous character, Bengston terminated his studies prematurely. Despite this, the artist cites both Voulkos and previous teacher Richard Diebenkorn as “showing me how I might physically approach painting…”

Bengston and Price moved into a studio with beach access in Venice, California in 1960. During this period, Bengston stopped making ceramics and took up painting. He experimented with color, surface texture, and simple symbols after he had encountered Jasper Johns’ target paintings at the Venice Biennale in 1958. The use of the iris leitmotif in Bengston’s work first occurred with the oil painting Count Dracula at the Chessboard (1960). The title was conceived after Price noted that the central form mimicked that of the transformational shape of Count Dracula from vampire to bat. The hues of color, rendered on canvas in golden and ochre yellows, interact in their variations and glimmer throughout. The beautifully impastoed surface of paint carefully raised around the sharp image of the iris at the center suggests his training as a ceramicist and as a technically advanced master in the exploration of color and form. Bengston aborted the iris motif to explore other symbols such as chevron stripes and would not revisit the iris again until the 1970s.

Los Angeles native Ken Price (1935-2012) shared many affinities with his studio mate. Both were quickly hoisted by art critics as colorful beacons of Los Angeles’ emerging young artists scene. In 1970 Price retreated to Taos, New Mexico to work on the Happy’s Curios Series, which consumed him for more than five years. A self-funded project that he had fantasized about executing since his surf trips to Baja, California with Bengston and Larry Bell, Price discussed the impetus behind the project: “We always made a special point of hitting the curio stores in TJ [Tijuana] because they had great pottery…the makers considered themselves to be operating factories…they weren’t aware of themselves as artists…I got turned on and thought I would make a tribute to Mexican pottery in the form of a curios store.”

Throughout t he mid-1970s, Price would create hand-painted ceramic wares, in addition to a handful of brilliantly colorful weavings conceived from his interpretations of themes culled from Mexican craft decorations to be sold in his curio shop. After years of trials, and ultimately, financial exhaustion, Price retired from the idea of setting up shop. These two wall hangings from the Happy’s Curios Series (1975) exhibited at his monumental second solo LACMA show demonstrate the artist’s fascination with vivid color palettes. Woven by Zapotec Indians of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, based on the artist’s drawings, the tapestries are a magnificent display of Ken Price’s capacity to explore other mediums and processes in a period of polychromatic triumph.

Livingston, Jane. “Billy Al Bengston: Some Retrospective Thoughts.” Bengston: Paintings of Three Decades. Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1988, 13-15. Print.
Tsujimoto, Karen. “Painting as a Visual Diary. ” Bengston: Paintings of Three Decades. Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1988, 17-38. Print.
Tuchman, Maurice. Ken Price Happy’s Curios. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1978. Print.
Price, Ken. “Ken Price: Personal Influences.” Ceramics Monthly, September 31-35, 1994. Print.
Price, Ken. Interview by Michele D. De Angelus. Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective. New York: Prestel, 2012. Print.