Rediscovering Tom Benton

 

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,” 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.”

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.”

andrew@aspendailynews.com