Born in Dodge City, Kansas, Billy Al Bengston attended the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design). During this formative period he became intrigued by the evocative power of natural forms; this interest has remained constant throughout his career.
Bengston had his first one-person gallery show in 1958, his first solo museum exhibition in 1968, and his first solo European show in 1970. His work has been shown throughout Europe and the Americas, including the 1965 Bienal in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has frequently been a guest instructor at colleges and universities, and was one of three artists to receive initial grants from the National Foundation for the Arts (now the National Endowment for the Arts) in 1967. He has been invited to make prints at Tamarind Lithography Workshop on numerous occasions.
The iris was a central motif in Bengston's art of the 1970s. Its use was inspired by his fascination with the logo on sugar packets produced by the Iris Sugar Company. When a fellow artist saw the works, he commented that the fully extended petals of the flower resembled bat wings and recalled the figure of Count Dracula. It is because of this association that Bengston's renditions of the iris are called "dracula." The images of the iris fluctuate between familiarity and abstraction in the viewer's consciousness, confirming Bengston's lifelong adherence to art derived from reality, as well as his conviction that "the mystery of art is real."
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion program to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art. Produced by the Department of Education Resources, this teaching resource is one of the Gallery's free-loan educational programs.]