Review by Rory Feehan - www.totallygonzo.com
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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’smagazine 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.
The book is available through The People’s Press
Aspen Daily News – February 13, 2011
Article written by Andrew Travers
The artwork of Tom Benton is ingrained in the fabric of modern Aspen history. The famed printmaker and activist’s memorably audacious silk-screen posters charted the political movement of the ski town’s dropout era, challenging the local forces of commercial development and the national escalation of the war in Vietnam.
A provocateur and pamphleteer in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Benton was blessed with a flare for eye-catching visuals and etched-in-your-mind sloganeering, buoyed by an earnest optimism and hope that transcends some of his gruesome imagery.
Copies of Benton’s best-known work, his posters championing Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff, today line walls all over Aspen — from the Hotel Jerome, to the actual sheriff’s department, to the office of the law firm and development powerhouse Garfield & Hecht.
But when he died in 2007, at age 76, after more than four decades of living and working in Aspen, Benton left behind no organized catalog of what he’d done — no definitive collection of his oeuvre. His prints, posters and monotypes were strewn around Aspen and across the country in a fittingly anarchic sprawl.
To find what was out there, local writer Daniel Joseph Watkins and Benton’s friend and patron George Stranahan teamed up to hunt down the artist’s surviving work. The result of their modern treasure hunt is the exhaustive database at bentonbook.com, and the forthcoming book “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” which will be published in July by People’s Press, the Aspen-based publishing house Stranahan founded in 2008.
“It was a trip into the barns and basements and attics of old Aspen,” Watkins said of the search for Benton’s work.
As they found previously unknown pieces by Benton, Watkins photographed them and digitally inventoried them — eventually putting them all on the website and writing a weblog about his discoveries along the way.
In all, Watkins found more than 500 Benton works — unearthing them in private troves like the collection of local dentist Bruce Carlson, whose more than 100 Bentons, Watkins said, served as “the backbone” of the catalog.
Along with an ample trove at the Aspen Historical Society, Benton’s works came from the collections of bold-faced names including actors John Belushi and Bill Murray, composer Leonard Bernstein and folksinger John Denver, senators Gary Hart and George McGovern, television journalist Ed Bradley and even from President Ronald Reagan.
Some of the most memorable new discoveries, though, were the serendipitous result of word getting out around the Roaring Fork Valley about the Benton project.
“It was an amazing thing,” Stranahan laughed. “You’d meet someone in line at the drugstore they’d say, ‘You know I’ve got a Benton in my basement that nobody’s ever seen.’”
Watkins is currently putting the final touches on “Thomas W. Benton, Artist / Activist” the retrospective that highlights some 160 of Benton’s pieces in coffee-table book fashion. He opted to largely hold off on commentary or analysis of Benton’s output and didn’t attempt to write a detailed biography — instead, he let the work mostly speak for itself.
“It’s not a portrait of the artist,” Watkins said.
That choice was largely an extension of Benton’s ardent belief that his work did not need interpretation, Watkins said.
“There are no hidden meanings,” the book quotes Benton saying. “I know art is often what other people bring to it. It’s a take-off for their own psychobabble. I don’t particularly want to hear it.”
The silk-screens and paintings that make up most of the book’s pages are broken up with 11 brief explanatory entries by Watkins. It also includes poems by Benton collaborator Joe Henry, and the transcript of an interview with Benton from Peggy Clifford’s book “Aspen: Dreams & Dilemmas.”
Watkins brackets the collection with short chapters tracking the trajectory of Benton’s breathtaking career. Readers are clued-in on topics like Benton’s connection to Aspen, his decades-long service designing stark campaign posters for local progressive candidates, his anti-war and anti-Nixon stance and the fierce, shocking artwork he made to express it. Benton’s later, little-known movement into abstract work and painting, along with his still-standing contributions to Aspen architectural design, are also discussed in the book.
Watkins’ sparse and workmanlike prose, alongside the visual assault of Benton’s staggering work, amount to an elegant addition to the cottage industry of literature on Aspen, and a testament to the little-known span of the artist’s triumphs.
It also offers a graphic chronicle of Aspen politics, from the 1970 Freak Power movement to 2006’s farewell campaign for Sheriff Bob Braudis.
“It’s almost a visual history of the local political scene,” Watkins said.
Indeed, in the pages of “Thomas W. Benton,” one can see Aspen grapple with itself in the days from the late-1960s hippie influx to the turn of the century.
A one-time chairman of the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission, Benton was an ally to Aspen’s slow-growthers of the ’60s and ’70s and their decades-long fight against the exploitative and dollar-driven aims of so-called “greedheads.”
Heather Rousseau/Aspen Daily News
In Benton’s iconic style, you’ll find the red peace-sign fingers on a 1969 poster for mayoral candidate Joe Edwards and the salvo “Sell Aspen or Save It.” In a later poster for county assessor candidate Georgia Herrick Taylor, Benton offers an abstracted white sun over a pink background and the quote: “The right man for this job is a woman.” Another print protesting a local campaign to bring events for the 1976 Winter Olympics to Aspen’s ski hills shows the five-ringed Olympic symbol above an oversized white fist in a thumbs-down position, and the words: “stop the final rape of Aspen.”
In 1995, as the Woody Creek Caucus did battle with the Aspen Skiing Co. over a campaign to expand the airport to accommodate 737s, Benton used an image of a cowboy undertaker standing over a grave — an image he originally used for coroner candidate Bill Noonan in 1970 — with two statements culled from Thompson and the caucus: “There is some shit we won’t eat” and “I shit on the chest of the Ski Company.”
The anti-737 campaign won, but many of the local causes Benton advocated for in his work didn’t. The book shows him acknowledging his “kiss of death” effect on some candidates.
Also in the pages of the People’s Press book, you’ll find reprints of all six of the “Aspen Wall Poster” series, on which Benton and Thompson collaborated in 1970. The posters married Thompson’s acerbic writing with Benton at his visually boldest on fold-outs featuring jarring images: a herd of sheep on a county road over the slogan “SKI FAT CITY” on wall poster number three; a marksman’s target with a brain in its bulls-eye over the words “THE AMERICAN DREAM” in poster number four.
The fifth wall poster featured the “Thompson for Sheriff” logo and its double-thumbed red fist, holding a peyote button. The fist symbol was later morphed into Thompson’s “gonzo” icon, which Benton also popularized in posters. The sheriff and gonzo pieces, which went on to become Benton’s most widely recognized work, tend to distract from the rest of his output, Watkins said.
“A lot of times when you mention Benton, people say, ‘Oh he’s just the guy who did the Hunter Thompson posters,’” he said. “In a lot of ways that was a double-edged sword for him, because his work overall has a lot more depth and breadth than just that print.”
Having served in the U.S. Navy in the Korean conflict, Benton picked up a strong distaste for war and violence. He also carried a heavy influence from the Far East’s artwork, and through his career you’ll find symbols like doves and mandala-like circles. He often employed lines from Eastern poets like Izumi Shikibu and Akiko Yosano in his silk-screens.
Benton’s anti-war work is powerful and from the gut, conjuring unshakable images like a circle filled with the stars and bars of the American flag, bleeding red over a black background beside the phrase, “we are all prisoners of war.” He painted flags with dollar signs and swastikas replacing the stars and portrayed President Richard Nixon as a Nazi and vampire. In 1972, he expressed his opposition to Nixon’s re-election with a silk-painting of a bloody palm print over the words, “re-elect the president” — a poster he resurrected during President George W. Bush’s 2004 bid.
One of the last posters Benton made in his life was a 2006 portrait of a bloody red, white and blue skull under the words, “KOREA,” “VIETNAM,” and “IRAQ” — his capstone anti-war work.
Watkins argues that those aggressive calls for peace are reason to continue taking note of Tom Benton. “Benton’s anti-war stance and the powerful statements he made about peace and justice, those are timeless and have renewed meaning today,” he said.
Last week, Watkins spoke about his Benton project to the Kansas Art Institute class of Professor Hal Elliott Wert, who wrote “Hope,” a 2009 art book chronicling the resurgence of campaign poster iconography during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run. In an essay in that book, Wert cites Benton’s posters for Hunter Thompson, Gary Hart and George McGovern as an apex in the craft of campaign art — alongside anti-Nixon works by pop art legends Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha.
In and around Aspen today, Benton’s work stands in two buildings he designed and built in the downtown core, including 521 E. Hyman Ave., which served as his home and studio from 1963 until his 1975 divorce from his first wife. A handful of homes he built in the area also get the Architectural Digest treatment toward the end of Watkins’ book.
While he never stopped producing campaign posters for local candidates — “Benton never said no to a good cause,” Watkins explained — Benton largely shied away from national issues following the end of the Vietnam War, and his overall production fell off sharply. By the late 1980s, Benton took a job as a deputy for Sheriff Braudis at the Pitkin County Jail to pay his bills — a job he held, on and off, until 2003. But we learn in “Thomas W. Benton” that he did continue painting some during that period, concentrating on personal abstract work, monotypes, oils and drip paintings.
Stranahan said he spearheaded this Benton project largely to learn about his friend’s work and to look back at their time as radical mountain-town peaceniks. But, he added, the lessons of Benton’s work go beyond one era or one place’s culture.
“It was about Tom. It was about Aspen. It was about those years,” Stranahan said. “But it also ended up being about the universal human predicament. We cause a lot of damage as human beings. And I think it’s pretty clear that he was opposed to violence — he was pro-peace, he was about getting over the argument.”
Reserve copies of “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist” are available for presale at www.peoplespress.org.
Tom Benton created three works of art with singer-songwriter John Denver to benefit local charities. Two posters were created for concerts held to benefit the Touchstone Mental Health Clinic in Aspen; two performances in Paepke Auditorium on December 14, 1972, and two more at the Wheeler Opera House on February 19, 1974. Denver signed the second poster “Peace, John” and Benton sold the limited edition of 50 prints at the event to benefit Touchstone.
Benton also created a limited edition of 100 silkscreen prints with Denver’s lyrics to benefit the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Old Snowmass, Colorado. The poster featured the lyrics from Denver’s song “The Eagle and the Hawk”.
“sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars, reach for the heavens and hope for the future and all that we can be not just what we are” – John Denver
Tom was a very special and gifted man. His friendship and creativity inspired me in my own career. He was kind and generous, always willing to share his knowledge, time, and creativity. He stimulated thought and imagination. He backed his own political views with his beautiful and colorful posters. He was a true friend.
Tom’s artwork spoke of an extraordinary time in Aspen. I worked with him in his studio when I was attending Aspen High School. As an artist in the Roaring Fork Valley, he was my first inspiration and experience into the world of creative arts. I am happy to see a book being published of his work. The posters helped to shape an historical moment in this beloved ski town. Thank you for your prolific enthusiasm, Tom. You are missed. - Judy Haas
I first visited Aspen as a college freshman art student on Christmas break in 1965. I naturally found my way to Tom and Betty’s newly built, three story home, art studio, silkscreen foundry, and gallery, located next to what is now Little Annie’s Eating House. It would be one of my fondest and enduring memories of “early” aspen”
I couldn’t afford any of Tom’s $10.00 & up posters and serigraphs-a fact that my shaggy, anarchist, but carfefully engendured appearance made obvious to anyone but me. The Benton’s, however, took me in, took the time and effort to talk to me of fine arts and finance and cabbages and kings.
As a burgeoning “back east” activist and future commerical artist I felt enriched by that encounter with Tom and Betty. It was, perhaps, the first crafts-kinship of my own artistic career-all this quickened by the realization that, yes, it was possible to make a living as an artist in a ski town.
Three venues I persued with zeal myself over the next 40 years!
“The Japanese master Hokusai said, ‘until I’m sixty, I will be a beginner and nothing I do will have any meaning. From sixty to seventy, you can look at what I’m doing; from seventy to ninety, I’ll finally be getting it together; and from ninety on, every dot, every line will be perfection.” -Tom Benton
Screen printing is a stencil method of printmaking in which a design is imposed on a screen of silk or other fine mesh, with blank areas coated with an impermeable substance, and ink is forced through the mesh with a squeegee onto the printing surface. Each color is applied to the print individually to create the final image. It is also known as silk screening or serigraphy.
Benton was prodigiously productive, a man considered by peers and collaborators alike as equal parts dreamer and doer. Tom was known for creating everything he needed, from his art supplies to his furniture to his home and art studio—and often his tools and accessories were as captivating as his works on display. Said friend Jay Cowan, “he could have gotten rich designing buildings, furniture, accessories, almost anything, but he wanted to produce art and he did.”
Tom Benton was deeply devoted to the political movement and designed his first campaign posters for Edwards’ campaign. Although Edwards lost by 6 votes, the campaign was notable for its attempt to garner nearly all of its support from ‘freaks’, ‘heads’, and ‘dropouts’ from the surrounding areas – Freak Power, as it was dubbed.
Below is an excerpt from Thompson’s article in the Rolling Stone. Thompson mentions Benton when referring to Edwards’ supporters at local polling stations on election day.
“What were they doing out here at dawn, in the midst of this menacing mob? What indeed? Bugsy (The incumbent mayor) scurried inside to meet Guido, but instead ran into Tom Benton, the hairy artist and known radical…Benton was grinning like a crocodile and waving a small black microphone, saying: ”Welcome, Buggsy. You’re late, The voters are waiting outside…Yes, did you see them out there? Were they friendly? And if you wonder what I’m doing here, I’m Joe Edwards’ poll watcher…and the reason I have this little black machine here is that I want to tape every word you say when you start committing felonies by harassing our voters…” – Rolling Stone, October 1, 1970.
Benton later created another poster for Edwards’ successful campaign for Pitkin County Commissioner in 1972. During his career, Benton designed over 50 campaign posters for candidates including Bill Noonan, Ned Vare, Gary Hart, George McGovern, Willie Brown, and Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis.
Now symbolizing peace, the emblem was devised by Bertrand Russel and is a combination of two semaphores (signals with flags), N and D, meaning Nuclear Disarmament. When turned upside down the symbol is the ancient symbol for man.
Tom Benton, a devoted peace activist, organized a memorable anti-war protest and peace march to the home of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Old Snowmass. Because of his objections to the Vietnam War, Benton refused to let McNamara leave his driveway during the protest
“He considered it a moral dilemma that (McNamara) couldn’t escape,” recalled former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling.
Benton also organized a protest in 1969 against a nuclear detonation in Rulison, Colorado. Benton marched to Rulison with supporters and distributed posters with bright radioactive symbols along with the words, ”No Contamination Without Representation” and “Stop the Military Industrial Complex”.
“Throughout his career Tom remained steadfastly loyal to rock solid values and committed to sending his political message through his art. He’s always been a very courageous spokesman both through his art and his politics for issues related to peace and the environment.” -Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis
The Aspen Wallposters:
The wallposter is a bi-weekly publication of the Aspen Wallposter Corporation, Box 1561, Aspen, Colorado. Subscription rates will be announced in issue No. 2. A very limited amount of advertising will be accepted as of issue No. 3 The Wallposter is not a newspaper – at least not for now. But the sneaky demise of the Illusrated News leaves Aspen with only one editorial voice (in print & on the air) and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. We intend to fill that vacuum. We also intend to make some people wish that wolves had stolen them from their cradles. The only criteria for art and editorial content will be quality- Any nazi greedhead with the money to hire a good ghostwriter is welcome to submit his screeds for publication. Dull, and/or illiterate bullshit will be rejected out of hand. Our space is limited and we have no rewrite staff to cope with gibberish or garbled swill. We’ll make every effort, however, to publish any relevant, coherent and even outrageous counterpoint to our own clearly biased opinions. So – in the now-famous words of Spiro T. Agnew – “Let the Hundred Flowers Bloom”
-The Editors (Tom Benton and Hunter Thompson)
The following article appeared in the Aspen Times on March 5, 1970. Page C-1
Scurilous Sheet hits the streets.
A new way to open your eyes, fill your mind or line your waste basket was introduced to Aspen this week with publication of the first issue of The Aspen Wall Poster.
Designed as a bi-monthly output of graphics and opinion printed in a poster format, the new publication is the result of efforts by Tom Benton and Hunter S. Thompson to fill the editorial void created by the recent close of the Aspen Illustrated News.
The opening article by Thompson had been accepted by the News for publication before the abrupt end game of the paper. Looking for a forum that would be free of the financial and editorial limitations of a newspaper, Thompson created the Wall Poster with Benton.
Denying the idea that they are looking for a personal soapbox, Benton and Thompson said in a statement on intent in the first issue they will accept any “relevant, coherent, and even outrageous counterpoint to our clearly biased opinions.
“The only criteria for art and editorial content will be quality. Any Nazi greedhead with the money to hire a good ghostwriter is welcome to submit his screeds for publication.”
When asked by an Aspen Times reporter in an exclusive newspaper interview (easy when you’re the only paper in town), who would be their principle targets in the promised bi-monthly “heavy shot on local things,” Thompson and Benton replied, “the greedheads, the land-rapers and the Nazis.”
A quick perusal of their first number gives some indication exactly who they consider in those categories.
Much like Consumer Reports which promise to “call spades spades, names, names, and let the chips fall where they may,” the Wall Poster will hopefully provide a forum in which consumer of the much abused “quality of life” in Aspen can report.
The Graphics on the first issue are a re-working of the Joe Edwards campaign poster and it is backed by a bit of prickly invective about city and county cracker barrel politics. But then it is the only way you can get a Benton poster for a dollar and if mounted with epoxy your children will never read the back.
Speaking of the format, Benton said that next time they would switch the invective and people would put the poster up against the wall. Thompson said that personally he would like to see the graphics get into the erotic. Nothing but dirty old logic, that, considering the way veritable mounds of Playboy are sold in Aspen.
The Wall Poster will also accept ads, but they must be interesting and will naturally be subject to editorial comment. Thompson remarked that advertisers could buy equal time in the issues that blasted them.
Thompson, swaggering around the clandestine press room of the sheet in jack boots, Same Browne belt and campaign metal denied rumors that he coveted the Pitkin County Sheriff’s job, “although he said he was growing a beard to better represent Aspen at law enforcement conferences.
He noted that pressure for a draft is strong among his east coast financial backers and a posse will be formed soon. Cowboy boots, side burns, and Basalt residency will not be mandatory, but useful.
The only member of the shadow organization that seems to surround the new sheet with a title is Circulation Manager Gene Johnston.
If warranted, he will make deliveries with a fierce dog in one hand, a large gun in the other and the posters flashing between.
Thompson said that “just because some of the writing may be a little heavy, it doesn’t mean it’s not serious.”
Remarking that the momentum for local reform had dropped since the election, the editors said that it was a mistake to only get excited two weeks out of the year.
Valley exploiters count on just such apathy and it would be a shame to let them have the whole game the rest of the year.
Although they claim to be entirely free of outside group influence, Benton noted that if you burn a candle under the poster, the word “revolution” appears. Thompson said that if you urinated on it, secret messages would come out in the margins, but he didn’t recommend doing it when you were holding the candle under.