Ralph Steadman visits Gonzo Gallery in Aspen
Ralph Steadman, the legendary English artist whose grotesque illustrations complemented Hunter S. Thompson’s writing for decades and helped define “gonzo journalism,” was in Aspen this weekend sharing his work and talking about his long partnership with the Woody Creek writer.
During a talk at the Gonzo Gallery on Saturday night, he recalled his first meeting with Thompson at the Kentucky Derby in 1970, when both were there on assignment for Scanlan’s Monthly for what would become the groundbreaking article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Steadman wandered Churchill Downs for three days before Thompson found him in the press club, he remembered.
“He said, ‘Are you Ralph Steadman?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘They told me you were weird. Not that weird.’”
At the time, the young Steadman wore a beatnik-styled goatee, which Thompson — a Louisville, Kentucky, native — warned him could spell trouble.
“They don’t take to those things here in Kentucky,” Steadman recalled Thompson warning him.
As Steadman sketched his monstrous caricatures of the wild derby crowds, he said spectators heckled him for watching them rather than the horses: “Turn around, buddy; you’re facing the wrong way!” he recalled them shouting.
The derby assignment began a career-long collaboration, with Steadman often playing the straight man to Thompson’s outlandish public persona.
“It went on like that for years, and it was a good, interactive, creative partnership,” he said. “A little like Laurel and Hardy without the mess.”
Steadman abstained from drugs on assignment with Thompson, except — he recalled — in the autumn after the Kentucky Derby story, when the gonzo pair went to the America’s Cup yacht race in Rhode Island. High on psilocybin, Steadman recalled, Thompson rowed a dinghy up to one of the yachts in the middle of the night and Steadman attempted to spray-paint “F—the pope” on the side of one of the boats.
On Friday night, the gallery opened a reprisal exhibition of new Steadman work that debuted in the winter, including ink-splattered Steadman drawings on Tom Benton’s “Thompson for Sheriff” posters and drawings on David Hiser’s portraits of Thompson from his 1970 campaign for Pitkin County sheriff.
In anticipation of his visit, Steadman also mailed piles of posters and prints from his personal archive to the Aspen gallery. At the opening Friday, Steadman spent hours signing them for the local Gonzo faithful and meeting his admirers. Steadman’s kind and generous nature belies the fierce and often venomous visual style in his artwork.
“I cannot stand unkindess,” he said Saturday night. “Doing it in the drawings, it’s not violent. I can put violence in the drawings, but it’s not violent. It might occasionally be enlightened, occasionally insulting.”
For Gonzo Gallery proprietor D.J. Watkins, working with Steadman and bringing him to Aspen was the culmination of years of work in the visual realm of gonzo journalism, which has included exhibitions and books on silkscreen artist Tom Benton and on Thompson’s sheriff campaign. Watkins has hopped between three downtown gallery locations in the past four years, providing a home for Aspen’s counterculture history and a lively space for debate about its present. He said the Steadman show will be the Gonzo Gallery’s last (though he’s said the Gonzo was shuttering for good twice before). Its current home, in the former Boogie’s Diner, is scheduled to close Sept. 1.
The gallerist visited Steadman in England last summer, when Steadman made the new commissioned works for the gallery, and returned in May for the artist’s 80th birthday celebration.
Of turning 80, Steadman quipped: “I’m not 80 years old, I’m double-aught 80; badly shaken and half-stirred.”
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