The exhibition will feature twelve historic paintings from Bengston’s 1961 “B.S.A. Motorcycle” series alongside a selection of newly painted works from the artist’s iconic “Chevron” series. The show will also include a California Custom Triumph motorcycle selected by Bengston and designed by close friend and notorious flat track racer, Sonny Nutter.
As one of the original Ferus Gallery artists in Los Angeles—which also included Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Edward Kienholz, Dennis Hopper, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and others—Billy Al Bengston and his peers shaped the Southern California art world. He embraced the aesthetics of Los Angeles car culture and “Finish Fetish,” a movement pioneered by Los Angeles artists based around creating objects with sleek pristine finish. Along with these influences, Bengston also adopted a series of motifs that appear throughout his paintings, the most prominent being the “Chevron,” or “Sergeant’s Stripes.” With the recognizable emblem set against carefully painted patterned or color field backgrounds, Bengston’s Chevron paintings oscillate between abstraction and representation, refusing to settle exclusively as either. While the earlier iterations of the Chevron are painted on lacquered Masonite reminiscent of a gleaming car hood, the newer versions demonstrate Bengston’s softened, more fluid painting style adopted in the transition onto canvas.
In 1961, Bengston was approached by Ferus Gallery and offered his third solo exhibition in the space. Rather than exhibiting the Chevron paintings he’d become known for, Bengston chose to expand his practice outside of abstraction, turning to his interest in flat track motorcycle racing for inspiration. The experiment resulted in a series of representational paintings based on various components of a B.S.A. motorcycle. The isolated and decontextualized motorcycle parts and B.S.A. logo are presented in the canvas’ center against monochromatic matte backgrounds with an auratic surrounding color field, as can be seen in works such as Gearbox and Carburetor Floatbowl. With the B.S.A. series, Bengston’s interest in Los Angeles car culture and flat track motorcycle racing emerged in both style—with the sleek Finish Fetish aesthetic—and subject matter. The paintings have been compared stylistically to Francis Picabia’s early machine paintings. Bengston’s B.S.A. Motorcycle series was adopted into the contemporary discourse surrounding the 1960s Pop Art movement with the paintings appearing in a number of important institutions, including the Whitney’s 1974 exhibition, American Pop Art. The VENUS presentation will mark the first time the paintings have been shown together since their creation in 1961.
The exhibition at VENUS will present historic paintings from Bengston’s career alongside new Chevron paintings from 2016, offering viewers a survey of the artist’s unique style and his undeniably important cultural impact both in Los Angeles and throughout the United States.