A tribute to artist and friend Tom Benton
When I first moved to Aspen all those long years ago, Tom Benton was the most famous artist in town.Herbert Bayer was probably the most famous artist who ever lived here, but he was better known on the world stage than to the average ski bum on the street, the same with Paul Soldner. Earl Biss came later. He emerged with the middle-class “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” guilt syndrome that helped make Native American art all the rage in the late 1970s and early ’80s.Tom, on the other hand, was famous to the regular people of Aspen. Everyone knew him and loved him and his work was ubiquitous.This is not to say that Tom wasn’t and isn’t known in the larger arena. He’s shown all over the country and, along with fellow artist Paul Pascarella, designed Hunter Thompson’s well-known “Gonzo Fist” logo. Benton designed the original cover for Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” and created posters for Gary Hart and other nationally known political figures.Today Tom Benton is in St. Anthony’s North Hospital in Westminster, fighting cancer throughout his lymph system. He is a wonderful artist and a wonderful friend.Like his close friend Thompson, Tom is intensely political. He’s an evangelical liberal whose sermons take the form of spectacularly beautiful images instead of rants from a pulpit. He weds these images to quotes from sources that range from Jesus and Shakespeare to poets Joe Henry and Robinson Jeffers to complete his effect.Benton has consistently been involved in local politics as well. His iconic posters for Dick Kienast’s sheriff campaigns, always with at least one dove soaring toward the heavens, caused the national media to dub Kienast, “Dick Dove.” His most recent poster was for his great friend Bob Braudis.In 1970 Benton created the “Hunter Thompson For Sheriff” poster that is a much-sought-after collectible to this day. He also created the “Aspen Wallposters” that were a key element in Hunter’s campaign for the sheriff’s office. The Wallposters were one-sheets or fold-once affairs. Tom designed the covers and did the entire layout on the inside or back, and Hunter wrote most of the text. Unlike the “HST For Sheriff” posters, the “Wallposters” were never reissued, and if you happen to own one I suggest you insure it.Tom studied architecture and like most males of his generation served in the military. While in the service he was based in Japan. His exposure to Eastern art and philosophy influenced him deeply and has remained a cornerstone of his work throughout his career. The 19th-century Japanese printmaker Hokasai became a hero. Zen painting and the Eastern notion of all things combining in a gestalt to form a greater “one” can be sensed lurking beneath the surface of all of Tom’s images. The circle, with its implied perfection, became a familiar theme. This is intentionally counter to the Western notion of the separation of church, state, etc. but completely consistent with Tom’s disdain for anything pedestrian or mainstream.In the late 1970s Tom began painting on canvas. Although his training as an architect made him a fine draftsman, his preferred medium has always been silkscreen, which he uses to create hard edges and beautiful fields of color. Branching out to brush painting was a major shift. Tom likes to claim that an artist friend told him that he’d never be a real artist until he started working on canvas. I don’t believe the story, but start he did.Tom’s palette and aesthetic remained the same, while the look of his work became much more fluid. He found inspiration for his canvases in Mark Rothko’s soft focus, almost hallucinated abstracts, Morris Louis’ beautiful, poured “stain paintings,” and Paul Jenkins “Phenomenon” series, in which Jenkins would work on unstretched canvases, and guided the paint with custom-made ivory knives.Tom’s entry into the large “color field” painting business came at just about the same time the New York avant garde was moving away from it. New York was deciding that if something was simply beautiful, it must be weak-minded, and for something to be intellectual and muscular, it pretty much had to be as ugly as dog crap. Once again Tom didn’t have to fear being part of the establishment. Tom never gave a hoot about what those people thought but, unfortunately, it wasn’t very good for business. Tom stuck to his guns, and there was never any question about that. It was far more difficult to sell the massive, room-sized paintings than his silk screens, which looked good in even the smallest condo and were accessibly priced because they were produced in editions. The best galleries still wanted to show Tom’s work because he is a prestige act, but showing and selling are often two different things. It wasn’t that people weren’t awed by the paintings, it’s just that most people couldn’t fit them in their homes or afford them. Nowadays a Tom Benton show consists of both canvasses and serigraphs, his silk screens having evolved to reflect the fluidity of the paintings.To this day, if there’s a political campaign in the city or county, there’s a Benton poster or two. Of course, only if he’s politically simpatico. If a candidate whose views Tom shared had no money, Tom would donate his work. A George Bush doesn’t have enough billionaire buddies to buy him.A history of Tom Benton’s silkscreens and paintings is a history of art in Aspen. Those who have collected his work over the years haven’t just been collecting beautiful images, they’ve been collecting Aspen history.Tom’s work can be seen at Larry Lefner’s Woody Creek Art Studio.
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