Representing the creative future

Billy Al Bengston, the 81-year old Muse of Hedi Slimane

It’s been quite the typical British Summer here in London this year come rain or shine, but over in California Billy Al Bengston has no doubt been enjoying the loyal rays of the Sunshine State; he’s even been spending time in the tropical paradise of Hawaii. Al Bengston’s work, both painting and sculpture, is known for its vibrancy. He had his very first solo exhibition in 1958 and continues to work as a successful artist today, residing in his Californian home in Venice, Los Angeles. His work infuses themes ranging from motorcycle imagery to the vivaciousness of the West Coast Pop Scene. We’re curious to find the root of his creativity: in which manner did he realise that he had an artistic streak? Was it a case of trying, or rather an exceptionally convenient discovery? Al Bengston reveals to us that he knew his calling by the age of eighteen, and that “in those days it was a passion and not a career.”

Billy was born in Kansas and made the move to Los Angeles as a child. “My parents brought me to California and without a doubt it is the best thing that happened to me as a child. I am a survivor of the dustbowl and am still handicapped by it, but I am too damn ornery to let it take me out and I am wildly happy with my life.” For those unfamiliar, the dustbowl was the grey period you hear about in Steinbeck novels, the evocative faces you see in the photographs of Walker Evans: a literal bowl of dust in the prairies causing US citizens to flee their homes in the 1930s, the era of Mr. Al Bengston’s childhood.


Al Bengston attended numerous Arts institutions including the California College of Art and the Los Angeles County Art Institute. The years of Billy’s college life are seen as the height of the ‘Surfer Subculture’ in California, which, amongst Hawaii and Australia was a key place of its expansion. It is this era and Al Bengston’s life and work that inspired Saint Laurent’s recent collection designed by Hedi Slimane: ‘Surf Sound’ or ‘Collection XIX’, which is described by the brand as ‘A tribute to contemporary Californian Surf Music culture’. Slimane has infused the iconic taste of sixties grunge with beach themed prints, accessorised with surfer beads and shades. The shabby yet suave blond male models strut alongside stern faced yet all the while elegant girls to a soundtrack of ‘Like Harry Dean’ by a conveniently named band ‘Swimmers‘.

They wanted to create a collection that shouts think-do-surf, so who else to collaborate with other than an artist so very familiar with this attitude? Upon learning that Saint Laurent had approached him about designing the invites for the runway show, one wonders what Billy’s response was to the proposal. “I hate to tell you,” he begins, “but I ignored it. If it were not for Sam Freeman” — referring to the Samuel Freeman gallery — “we wouldn’t be communicating.” But, he is quick to add: “I’m enjoying it now, though”.

Andy Warhol, Billy Al Bengston, and Dennis Hopper by Julian Wasser 

Billy Al Bengston’s studio (1995)

Billy polishing an artwork


As for Al Bengston’s approach for the invite designs, it is as direct as the man himself: “My approach is consistent. Do not crop or add on to any of my images and do the best you can.” Blunt yet honest, Billy’s words are what you could call candidly encouraging. So, Saint Laurent used his already existing work in the invites and nothing was intentionally created entirely for the brand? “Yep,” he says, “never saw any in person.” So what does Al Bengston think of the collection itself? Does he feel that Saint Laurent have captured the essence of the California Surf culture that has been so relevant to his life and work? After all, he has the first-hand knowledge of it. His response is brief but self-explanatory: “Surf and Culture don’t blend. `dunno and don’t care.” But, one may say this answer somewhat ironically embodies the carefree feel that Slimane intended for the line to have.

With regards to his current practice, he mentions: “Practice… I got sixty-five years of that behind me. I think a little bit. I do, I look, I do.” Environment is inevitably exemplified in an artist’s work, and much of Al Bengston’s work is flamboyant and colourful, meaning his artistry must tend to portray the years of his past that were indeed, filled with Californian vibrancy, as opposed to the reflection of a colourless, barren land he may have seen in those dustbowl years. His ‘survivor’ attitude and the ability to take great joy from his life is admirable. Asked if any particular pieces of his own collection are either favoured, or have more meaning to him, he tells us his rule: “If it ain’t right and it can be fixed, fix’er.” And on certain works ranking higher than others: “No work should be better than others. Simple. No faves, no junk.”