Review – Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist
Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist
This stunning coffee-table compilation of Tom Benton’s art is a treasure trove of material that is of huge significance to not only political art history, but also the history of Gonzo Journalism.
Many of you are of course already familiar with Benton through his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters and his striking skull design for the cover of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Yet to date Benton’s work has remained largely inaccessible, with the Aspen Wallposters proving to be particularly elusive due to their scarcity and the high price that they command on the rare occasion that they become available on the market.
Since I started this website just over three years ago, I have been inundated with enquiries regarding the Aspen Wallposters. I think it is fair to say that Benton has been criminally overlooked, not just in relation to his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, but also in terms of his contribution to protest art and political activism both at a local and national level.
In this sense, full credit must go to Daniel J. Watkins for undertaking the mammoth project of cataloguing over 500 pieces of art spanning five decades of Benton’s career, a task that involved traversing the length and breadth of the country in search of these prints, all of which were produced in limited unnumbered runs. No mean feat.
From this wider collection, Watkins has selected 150 prints divided into sections representing the evolution of Benton’s career, from his first posters as advertisements for various businesses and events in Aspen, through his political activism and collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, to his later foray into abstract monotypes and oil paintings. The final section showcases the four buildings that Benton designed and built in Aspen.
Considering that my knowledge of art is fairly limited, I must admit that my initial interest in this book was based solely on the fact that the Aspen Wallposters were finally going to be widely available to the Gonzo community. In many ways they remained one of the final pieces of the Gonzo jigsaw that had yet to fall into place, which is pretty remarkable given the prominent role they have played in relation to Thompson’s infamous Campaign for Sheriff of Aspen, as detailed in his Rolling Stone article The Battle of Aspen – Freak Power in the Rockies. However, the influence of Benton upon Thompson, and vice versa, goes far beyond this collaboration, a fact that is evident from the very first image presented in this book – A stark ,volatile, grey and white print emblazoned with the words – ‘The Garden of Agony – Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.’ The footnote informs us that ‘The Garden of Agony’ was the name of Benton’s studio.
Any doubt that Benton was cut from the very same cloth as Thompson, certainly in a political and philosophical manner, are firmly laid to rest by the inclusion of Peggy Clifford’s excellent interview with Benton at the beginning of this book. When asked about his thoughts on American people in general, Benton replied – ‘Most of them are robots. When I go to Los Angeles and I see those people content with smog and congestion and not rebelling, I have to think they they’ve been brainwashed.’ On his opinion of the corporate interests taking over Aspen he states – ‘I think they are going to win. I’m a pessimist, but I’m not a pacifist. I think you ought to take your cuts at them. If you’re going to go down, go down fighting.’
Given the deep affection for Aspen that was central to Benton’s creative drive it is unsurprising that he found the perfect platform of expression through the medium of campaign posters centred on local politics (and later on a national level). What is intriguing about many of these posters is the manner through which Benton’s aesthetic approach integrated political slogans with powerful visual symbols of the natural beauty of the Aspen wilderness. Of course there are exceptions, such as his poster for the Woody Creek Caucus which is emblazoned with one of the greatest political slogans I have ever seen (the hallmark of a certain Doctor that lived there).
Indeed it is of course the Gonzo section of the book that showcases the most recognisable aspect of Benton’s political art. The content included here is a rare treat for any fan of Hunter S. Thompson with the aforementioned Aspen Wallposters taking centre stage (all of which fold-out from the book). Their inclusion marks the first time that all six posters, each including Thompson’s writing on the reverse, have been made available since the original run of prints in 1970. I don’t want to spoil the details so all I will say is that the posters and accompanying text is pure vintage Gonzo at its best. To finally have this material is to fill a gap in the Gonzo narrative that has been there for far too long. Yet this is not the only Gonzo material that Watkins has included here, with an original voter registration poster for the Thompson for Sheriff campaign also featured, together with an article from The Aspen Times on the “Scurrilous Sheet” by Benton and Thompson and finally the two-page advertisement from Scanlan’s magazine in relation the ill-fated Nixon Wallposter.
Benton’s collaboration with Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters appears to have been a seminal event in his artistic development, certainly in terms of influence carried forward in relation to his political art. The activism section of the book clearly illustrates this, with many of Benton’s prints echoing his work with Thompson, which is perhaps facilitated by the subject matter – a thorough disdain for Richard Nixon and American foreign policy.
Overall this book is a testament to a man who not just embodied artistic vision, but who also had the courage and the passion to use his gift to make his feelings known in a world where speaking up is frequently rewarded with being shot down. Benton’s art tells a story, not just about a single cause or person, it is multi-faceted – at once portrait of a life, a city and a nation.
EDIT: You can buy the book here.