Bernie Taupin retrospective showcases famed lyricist’s painting career

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"Rise," by Bernie Taupin.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Meet Bernie Taupin, ArtAspen Honorary Artist

Where: Aspen Ice Garden

When: Friday, Aug. 14, 6 to 6:30 p.m.

More info:

What: ‘Blue Print,’ a Bernie Taupin retrospective

Where: ArtAspen, Aspen Ice Garden

When: Through Sunday, Aug. 16

How much: $20-$100


What: ‘Plain Brown Paper,’ new work by Bernie Taupin

Where: Gallery 1949, 402 S. Hunter St.

When: Opening Saturday, Aug 15, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.; runs through Sept. 15

More info:

Bernie Taupin has been writing songs with Elton John for nearly 50 years. But for about half that time, he says, crafting pop hits with Sir Elton has been a “hobby,” while his real work has been his painting.

“The arts go hand-in-hand,” Taupin said in a recent phone interview from his home outside Santa Barbara, California.. “If it’s sonic or it’s visual, it all comes from the mind and the mind is a pretty open field. So if you have a fairly vivid imagination, then I think it’s a natural extension from one medium to the other.”

Taupin, 65, is in Aspen this weekend at ArtAspen, where he is in the spotlight as the 2015 Honorary Artist. The annual art fair in the Aspen Ice Garden will feature a retrospective of his career, titled “Blue Print,” while Gallery 1949 is hosting an exhibition of his newer works, in a show dubbed “Plain Brown Wrapper.”

“Anyone who can see both of them is going to see the full arc of my work over the last 20, 25 years,” Taupin said.

Taupin devoted himself, pretty much full-time, to painting in the early 1990s when he settled in his current California home and converted its racquetball court into an art studio. His early work took its stylistic cues from Taupin’s favored abstract expressionists – an atmospheric color field experiment here, some Pop art-y text there – working on large canvases. In the years since, his abstract work has evolved, swerving into text-based work and collage, creating a body of work manipulating flags and another playing with targets.

Most recently, in the “Plain Brown” works, he’s been using found materials – twine plucked from the roadside, used nails, wood, cheesecloth, ash – for more experimental tactile creations. This summer, he’s starting to experiment with work on paper for the first time.

“With any artist, you start by emulating the things that you particularly care for,” Taupin said. “But the ultimate goal is to find your own voice or style that you feel is original to your own beliefs. I think anybody seeing these will see influence in the early stuff, but by the time you get to this material that’s contemporary, it’s fairly original in itself.”

He’s not in search of a single, signature aesthetic. He wants to play around in as many styles as he can, or at least as many that interest him.

“I can’t imagine any artist doesn’t want to experiment with other things,” he said. “If you look at a Mark Rothko or someone like that, it’s a very linear style – and I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s extraordinary at the same time – but it toes the line. I couldn’t do that. There’s too many things out there that I want to play around with.”

The local shows, which were exhibited at ArtHamptons last month, have been organized by curator and gallerist Mark Borghi. Exhibitions are also planned for Dallas and Miami.

Taupin has been a lifelong art lover. He recalled that, as a child, his mother fostered in him an appreciation for the Englsh Romanitic painter J.M.W. Turner (“the father of freak-out,” in Taupin’s words) and having his imagination fired by his portraits and landscapes that prefigured 19th century impressionism. By the early 1970s, as his music career was taking off, Taupin spent a lot of time in New York at the Museum of Modern Art.

“That’s when it hit me full-tilt,” he recalled. “I would spend hours and hours in there just gazing at huge canvases by people like Anselm Kiefer and Hans Hoffman and all those people were the people that inspired me. … It was so powerful to me that I knew at some point I would want to turn my hand to it.”

His music career, however, kept him in an itinerant lifestyle that didn’t afford him time painting in a studio. He was drawn to large-scale, visceral painting that he couldn’t pull off on the road.

“I knew that when I did settle down I wanted to find a space that was big enough for me to create the kinds of visual dynamics that I wanted to. I wanted my stuff to be explosive. I was never the kind of person that wanted to sit on a hill and paint rosebushes.”

His racquetball court-turned- studio leaving him more or less all the room he needs to paint (the normal-sized doors, he noted, are the only thing limiting the size of the work). The largest of the works in the ArtAspen show is nine feet long and four feet tall. Titled “Hang,” it features text of the word and related expressions stamped atop layers of red in a rough grid, upon layers of dripped paint beneath.

When it comes to painting, Taupin is no celebrity hobbyist. He spends about a month each year collaborating with Elton John, but otherwise he’s focused on his daily studio practice. And, with the support of Borghi, he has foothold in the art world. Of course, many will come to see his work because he’s the guy who wrote “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Tiny Dancer” (and “Crocodile Rock” and “Bennie and the Jets” and “Rocket Man” and “Daniel” and “Your Song” and “Candle in the Wind” and so on over 30-plus albums of pop hits). But, he hopes, people will stay to appreciate Bernie Taupin the visual artist.

“It’s very natural for someone to work in both mediums, especially if you’re someone like me that works from a cinematic standpoint – you’re either telling stories or painting stories,” he said. “If something punches at your imagination, there’s no harm in trying it. You may fall on your face, but at least you can say you’ve tried.”

Activities & Events

Asher on Aspen: Roots Revival

The Belly Up was high with energy last Wednesday night when Shakey Graves rolled into town. The stage was draped in moody lighting, amplifiers hummed with anticipation, and the crowd was buzzing with excitement. As I made my way through the sea of fans, I could feel the frenzy of enthusiasm in the air.

See more