Artforum International


Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 1968.

Billy Al and I met in the early 1960s when he was racing motorcycles at Ascot Park in Gardena. I visited him at the hospital after he broke his back in one of those contests and it pretty much ended his racing career, but not his passion for motorcycling. He got me interested in the sport and we toured several times going from the northern border of Baja to the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas, a distance of some one thousand miles. We would travel only on dirt roads to avoid the dangers of paved highways. We would get lost or “diverted” from time to time, but always with hilarious circumstances.

Billy had a serious passion for painting, ceramics, and printmaking. He made a brash statement with a series of paintings featuring various parts from his favorite BSA motorcycle. This was in 1961 when painting recognizable objects was almost non-existent. He dared to piddle with symmetrical picture-making using hearts and flowers smack in the middle of a canvas when that was practically illegal in the contemporary art world. He made paintings for people who didn’t have “necks like stacks of dimes.”*

He was a home cooker, a real chef, and an entertainer. If required, he could do Cordone Blue (sic) from cheap cans of chili and beans. A hundred assorted people might come to his parties. Nico, of the Velvet Underground, came to one and was overheard saying, “Oh Billee, I love your chili parties but all I want is an ohhn-chelada.”

Cover photo from Business Cards, a collaborative book project published by Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha 1968.   From left: Nancy Renard, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Danna Ruscha. Photo: Larry Bell.

The location of his living quarters and studio on Mildred Avenue in Venice remained the same for more than sixty years, but not a day passed that he didn’t perform some sort of remodeling with his trusted sidekick, Luis Perez. Sometimes an interior wall would be moved a puzzling three inches to the south. Or an open one-story room would be made into a one-and-a-half story room. Billy was comforting himself and giving us something to contemplate. And all of us contemplated these habits of B.A.B.

Billy took great pride in his clothing. Always edgy, he made a point of having his dress code be a statement. He outdressed us all and he did it without touching the Nudies style of North Hollywood. Come on. I can see his entire wardrobe including all of his velvet slippers and his motorcycle helmets being donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. I see his t-shirt flying on the Mall.

*An often used quote of H.C. “Cliff” Westermann, one of Billy’s human beings.

Ed Ruscha is an artist based in Los Angeles. Ruscha represented the US at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. A retrospective of his work will open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in September 2023 and travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in April 2024.

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