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Billy Al Bengston


Donovan's Reef


Polyurethane and lacquer on aluminum
26 x 25 x 0.125 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

Billy Al Bengston’s Donovan’s Reef is named after a 1963 John Ford movie starring John Wayne. Wayne’s macho, hard- drinking, hard-fighting screen presence was an apt stand-in for Bengston’s own artistic persona at the time. He identified with the actor’s tough-guy film legacy and, in a nod to Wayne’s prodigious output, titled all his work of the mid-1960s after Wayne’s movies.

Bengston, thirty-three years old when he made Donovan’s Reef, was near the end of a motorcycle-racing career. While creating art, he earned his living in the motocross world, where he was exposed firsthand to the plasticity of aluminum and its potential as a paint-bearing medium. Bengston began a series of pieces informally referred to as Dentos—painted works on aluminum that he dented and bent. Along with other L.A. artists of the time, he wanted to break away from the aesthetic dictates of New York–based abstract expressionism. One of the ways he did this was through his use of lacquer and car paint to achieve a seamless high-gloss finish and lush color.

In Donovan’s Reef, the rectangular cross-hatching pattern created by bending the metal, together with the squiggly lines of orange paint, suggest camouflage netting. This, along with the sergeant insignia painted in the center, are references to the pervasive climate of militarization accompanying the Vietnam War. Bengston’s linking of the US military and the film industry in this piece alludes to the American stance of global domination emerging in the 1960s.

Historically, an artist’s style was sufficient to identify authorship of a work. Bengston pushed this idea further. Coopting the emerging practices of corporate capitalism, he developed the sergeant stripe as his own logo. This was in line with the strategy of the influential Ferus Gallery, with whom Bengston began showing in 1958. Ferus was run by Irving Blum, a dynamic impresario out of New York who created an irresistible image of Los Angeles art using the latest advertising techniques. Ferus artists became actors of sorts, each playing a version of the bad boy/stud. This version of the L.A. art scene was highly successful, and Bengston was its “master sergeant.”

Bolton T. Colburn

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