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.
Today would have been Hunter’s 74th birthday. No matter what way you are marking the day, don’t forget the words, have a toast and most importantly – Have fun! If the celebrations get a little out of hand, here is some advice from the Good Doctor which might prove useful:
“When you push a car off a cliff and blow it up, be sure to roll the windows down to avoid shrapnel. Also, strip the license plate so you’re not billed for the cleanup.”
Wise words indeed 😉
UPDATE: Check this out, courtesy of the guys at Flying Dog.
Thomas W. Benton: Artist / Activist
By Daniel Joseph Watkins
Hi guys – delighted to bring you details of this fantastic new book by Daniel Joseph Watkins. Below is the press release and I will have a review up tomorrow.
Ok for now,
Launch event and signing are this week
Nationally recognized poster artist Tom Benton visually documented the issues and conflicts of Aspen and America for four decades beginning in the turbulent late 1960s. Two years after Benton’s death in 2007, Daniel J. Watkins embarked on a journey “into the barns and basements and attics of old Aspen,” according to the Aspen Daily News, to unearth and catalog more than five hundred of his works, many of them previously unknown.
The result is Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist, a coffee-table book that chronicles the life and political activism of the artist with 150 images of his work. Artist / Activist follows Benton from his early days in Aspen, which he considered a kind of Shangri-la threatened by money and development, through his disillusionment with politics and experimentation with different art forms.
In conjunction with the Aspen Art Museum, there will be a book release party on Wednesday, July 13 at the Sky Hotel from 5-7 p.m. Featuring original Benton works, food, drinks and a discussion with associate curator Matthew Thompson, this event is open to the public.
On Saturday, July 16, join Watkins at Explore Booksellers at 7 p.m. for a book reading, and question and answer session.
Cataloging political movements and elections from 1968 to 2006, Benton’s silkscreen posters are a powerful visual account of the issues and campaigns that shaped history. In addition to numerous candidates and issues in Aspen, Benton created political posters for presidential candidates George McGovern and Gary Hart, and against President Nixon.
The book includes never-before-published images of the Aspen Wallposters, a collaboration of Benton’s art and Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s writing that promoted their Freak Power movement. Benton’s later works, including abstract silkscreens, monotypes and paintings, are also explored in relation to the artist’s life and philosophies. Artist / Activist also documents Benton’s commercial work in Aspen as a signmaker/printmaker and architect.
The first major collection of Benton’s artwork to be published, Artist / Activist also includes ten poems by close friend and lyricist Joe Henry, a foreword by George S. Stranahan, and an introduction by art history professor Hal Elliott Wert. Watkins’ catalog of Benton’s work plus a blog can be found online at www.bentonbook.com.
“Tom Benton integrated strong and powerful graphic symbolism into the political fray of our times. His simple yet monumental approach to what needed to be said gave a voice to those who wished to be seen and heard. He remains a powerful example of commitment in a world gone wrong.”
—Ralph Steadman, Gonzo artist
“Tom Benton’s avant-garde anti-war, cause, and political posters place him in the center of a small number of great propaganda artists of the last century. Even those quite knowledgeable of poster art will be treated to dozens of posters rarely seen, if at all. This well-designed book is a major contribution to the history of political art.”
— Hal Elliott Wert, Kansas City Art Institute history professor, author of Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints
“As an artist, Benton used ink and paint and paper and passion and strong alliances to speak what had to be spoken. This very fine publication is a sentinel to Benton’s immortality.”
—Bob Braudis, former Pitkin County sheriff
“Watkins’ sparse and workmanlike prose, alongside the visual assault of Benton’s staggering work, amount to … a testament to the little known span of the artist’s triumphs.”
—Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News
Thomas W. Benton: Artist / Activist
Daniel Joseph Watkins
August 2011 / $39.95
Hardcover, 195 pages
I have exciting news here regarding the opportunity this coming June to participate in a Gonzo Journalism workshop with Douglas Brinkley at The Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony based in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The workshop takes place from June 12, 2011 – Sunday, June 19, 2011. Full details below:
The Hunter S. Thompson workshop will engage with the essence of Gonzo journalism. Assigned texts include Fear & Loathing, The Proud Highway, The Great Shark Hunt, and Generation of Swine. Further information on the workshop and our application form can be found at: http://nmwcolony.org/workshops/course_details/2/31/22. The application asks for a sample of your own journalistic writing.
The instructor Dr. Douglas Brinkley is the literary executor of the Hunter S. Thompson estate. Dr. Brinkley is a Professor of History at Rice University. Since 1989 he has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, Princeton University and Tulane University. Six of his biographies have been chosen as New York Times books of the year. Brinkley is also a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and American Heritage, as well as a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.
The Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony is an educational nonprofit dedicated to supporting and celebrating literary voices which challenge the norm and surprise their audiences. We promote a vision of the writer as an actor in public debate.
We hope to bring together a community of Thompson enthusiasts and great writers for this week in June!
Norman Mailer Center &
Well what can I say guys, that is quite the opportunity – please let me know if you intend on applying and of course should you be one of the lucky few who gets a scholarship!
All the best,
The folks over at The Quietus really gifted the Gonzo world a rare treat this week by unearthing this great interview with Hunter from 1998. It is fairly lengthy and covers some very interesting topics – from Bill Clinton to The Rum Diary. I’m not going to jabber on about this too much, it is just great to read new words (old words?) from the man, particularly in relation to his thoughts on Paul Kemp and Yeamon – check it out here.
In keeping with the whole Rum Diary focus, long time Gonzo devotee Robert Chalmers checks in over at The Independent with a great interview with Bruce Robinson – in which the director of The Rum Diary discussing everything from how he thought he was going to die in a plane crash with Johnny Depp to why writing The Rum Diary screenplay dredged up some old demons. Read the entire piece here.
Ok for now – time to raise a toast to The Good Doctor,
• What: Gonzo Fest
• When: Saturday, noon to midnight and beyond
• Where: The Monkey Wrench, 1025 Barret Ave.
• Cost: Admission: $12 advance, $15 at the door, $75 for VIP package including rooftop access.
• Info: Tickets and information: (502) 582-2434
Sorry for the short notice,
Check it out if you can,