Billy Al Bengston, Untitled (Dracula Series), 1959

Billy Al Bengston
Untitled (Dracula Series)
Oil on canvas, 1959
10-1/2 x 9-1/4 inches
Gift of Ruth and Murray Gribin
Untitled (Dracula series) is from the first series of iris paintings that Billy Bengston completed in 1959. It is the theme that immediately precedes the chevrons, but it is one that he would not revisit until the 1970s. Karen Tsujimoto talks about the origins of Bengston’s titling of the series: “When Kenneth Price saw the first canvases based on this flower, with its petals looking like extended wings, he commented that it looked like Count Dracula flying through the window as he metamorphosed into a bat. Bengston immediately responded to Price’s impromptu observation and, thus, the iris came to be known as a Dracula.” Bengston’s titles for the iris paintings in the Dracula series clearly draw the focus away from its subject matter.
Although also heraldic (French monarchs used fleur-de-lis—a symbol of the lily—emblems on flags, tapestries, shields, and armor), Bengston has referred to the iris as vaginal in reference. It is ironic that an artist so identified with the myth of the macho LA artist could work so fluently with imagery that would become the exclusive realm of feminists only a few years later. Feminist artist Judy Chicago, who is best known for developing flower-based vaginal iconography, would graduate with her MA in 1964 from UCLA and not premier the Dinner Party—arguably her most important flower-based vaginal iconography—until 1979. Of additional note is the high regard that Bengston held for Jay DeFeo, whom he knew as a fellow artist in the Ferus Gallery stable. DeFeo began work on The Rose in 1958, a piece she built over a six-year period, which, with its centralized imagery and flower reference, bears obvious similarities to Bengston’s iris paintings.