Billy Al Bengston Might Paint the Canals Red


“Venice, California and Venice, Italy are a long ways apart—philosophically and every other way—and I just wanted to show a bit of appreciation and that we’re not all backwoods people here,” says the hilarious L.A.-based painter Billy Al Bengston about the gondolas he’s going to paint for the group show “Venice in Venice.” Curated by Tim Nye and Jacqueline Miro, the Biennale satellite will feature new work by 1960s-era California artists including Larry Bell, Bruce Conner, John McCracken, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, and, most irreverently, Bengston. Though he’s not sure what he’s painting just yet, he confirms, “I’m doing what all modern artists do now, which is nothing, just sit around and dream about things. I’ll do what they call the stroke of genius. I was going to something quite different and then I said, ‘What am I doing? I’m going to Italy, I’m going to Ferrari-Ducati-land.'”

In other words, while the final product is still in the planning stages, Bengston, who made his name in the early ’60s by using laquered auto paint to create high-gloss geometric and abstract forms on metals and canvases, says the idea is a nod to his longtime passion: Moto GP.

“I’ve been following [Italian racer] Valentino Rossi for 15 years. He was a teenage phenom and he’s stunningly rich now and still cute as a button, and he’s ridden for Honda and Yamaha and just signed with Ducati, and it’s such a brilliant thing,” notes Bengston, who used to race BSAs in his prime. “So what I said is, ‘Why don’t we paint them in Ducati colors?'” Translation: he’s base-coating one of them white with some Day-Glo green to match Rossi’s “eye-busting” signature leathers; the other will be grounded in Ducati red with a white top coat to represent American racer Nicky Hayden’s colors. “I owe a great debt to motor-racing, and the first place I went to in Europe when I was 20 was Italy, and I was extremely influenced by it in books until I got there.”

Though he loathes contemporary art festivals—or “those zoos”—the self-proclaimed “lone wolf” revels in the fact that he might cause a stir on the Grand Canal by helping this awkward man-powered vessel break free from its classically boring design. “All I have to do is put 46 on one of those boats and I’m a winner,” says Bengston with a hearty laugh. The 66-year-old artist, who lives a block from the Venice Beach canals, spent a lot of time studying the history of gondolas.

“They’ve ruled with an iron hand for years and years on how gondolas are supposed to look, the costuming, and they’re ubiquitous, but they really don’t do anything in the water,” adds Bengston, rattling off trivia like the fact that all gondolas span 37 feet and list five feet to the right (to compensate for the drivers). “My thinking is: make that thing do something in the water. It harkens back to my old painting, which is highly reflective. You do that by turning this slug in the water into something that’s not camouflaged.”

To achieve this, Bengston eschewed patterns like plaids, for bright solid colors, which he thinks will reflect off the water, and vice versa. “I’m hoping what I bring to this is a new sensation, not an advertisement for myself,” he says, making clear his boats better get wet. “Tim called and says, ‘They won’t let them in because they’ve never had anything but black gondolas.’ I said, ‘Put the fucker in the water and let them arrest you.’ If you’re going to act like a Venice, Californian that’s what you do. Then you won’t have to come back again and you’ll be happy. You’ll be permanently banned!”