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SANTA MONICA

You stare out the old window with its little square panes onto a summer moon so huge it seems to be right in the back yard. Slowly other moons and planets materialize until the whole window is full of exotic astral bodies whorling with lavender and veined with pink canals. Comets crisscross the firmament and it is so beautiful that for the moment you don’t care whether or not you have lost your mind.

That seems to be the basic fantasy behind Billy Al Bengston’s new paintings. They are made up of one or several colored circles orchestrated with vertical and horizontal bands. Collectively these 15 works represent Bengston’s largest and most serious local exhibition in several years.

Recently the artist has made small pictures with figurative motifs like Venetian blinds, jetliners, tropical plants or a little dog doing tricks. The pictures were dying to please--with the emphasis on dying. These new paintings seem to dare us to dislike them. Their circular motif is notoriously boring in its perfection. The evocation of mystikitsch a la Francesco Clemente invites polite disbelief.

But the second-thought truth is that Bengston challenges himself more bravely here than he has done since the days of his spray-painted “Dentos,” setting up complex formal problems that make his circles read simultaneously as solids and windows, executing them with flat, decorative painting that he contrives to cause orbs to turn illusionistically.

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A number are duds and all have a certain bowling-ball inertia. A few, like the big heroic “Altoona,” overcome limitations with the vitality of splashed yellow line and what used to be called “dynamic symmetry.” “Seneca” is a nice conceit with its planetary arc, and almost none is missing Bengston’s legendary sense of lush color.

It is a relief to be able to call them problematic because it’s been a long time since Bengston dealt with anything deeper than stylish entertainment. These works eyeball theory so closely that one of them looks like it wants to detach from its square background and float like a Bob Irwin disc. (James Corcoran Gallery, 327 5th St., to May 30.)


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