Aspen author’s book features Tom Benton’s work |

Aspen author’s book features Tom Benton’s work

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesD.J. Watkins of Aspen appears Wednesday for a book release event for "Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist," his book about the Aspen artist.

ASPEN – Leonard Lauder knows plenty about posters. A renowned art collector, Lauder has assembled collections of posters, which now are in the hands of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions. And Lauder has more than a passing familiarity with Aspen, where he has owned a home since 1978.

Recently, though, Lauder had a gap in his knowledge, of poster art and Aspen history, filled. After his talk, “The Art of the Poster,” at the Aspen Institute last week, Lauder was approached by D.J. Watkins, who gave Lauder a gift: a copy of “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” Watkins’ new book on the Aspen printmaker who died in 2007. Watkins pointed out examples of Benton’s work – particularly some ski posters, given that the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium currently features an exhibition of Swiss ski posters from Lauder’s collection.

“He saw the ski posters and went, ‘Wow,’ over the design, the graphics, the Bayer blue” – a reference to the deep blue shade that designer and artist Herbert Bayer used throughout Aspen in the middle of the 20th century, Watkins said. Lauder was not familiar with Benton, but he took the book home, and it’s easy to imagine, given his passion for poster design and propaganda, spending time getting to know Benton’s significance as an artist, a war protester, and a key figure in the rise of Aspen’s anti-establishment movement. “That reaction is similar to what I think people’s reactions will be to the breadth and beauty of Benton’s artistic career,” Watkins said.

Benton isn’t an unknown figure in Aspen, where he lived from the mid-’60s until his death in 2007. But Watkins believes Benton’s reputation is limited, more or less, to the work he did with Hunter S. Thompson in 1970, when Benton created the posters for the writer’s failed candidacy for Pitkin County sheriff. Among the 160 posters reproduced in “Artist/Activist,” a bunch are Thompson-related – including several with the iconic two-thumbed “peyote” fist, Benton’s symbol for “freak power”; and, published for the first time, the series of five Aspen Wallposters, which featured text by Thompson and, thanks in part to ads in Rolling Stone magazine, became big sellers.

“So many people think, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who did the Thompson for sheriff posters.’ That pigeonholed him,” said the 27-year-old Watkins, who will appear at 5 p.m. Wednesday in a book release event, presented by the Aspen Art Museum, at Sky Hotel.

But when Watkins first encountered Benton’s work, it wasn’t the Thompson connection that drew him in. On his first visit to Aspen, in 2008, Watkins – who, as a student at Baker University in Kansas, had made his own anti-war prints – saw a more recent Benton piece: “Korea, Vietnam, Iraq,” a 2006 silk-screen. The boldness of the design and the immediacy of the message made an impact.

“There’s an apathy, a lack of powerful statements today, with the wars going on,” Watkins said. “Looking at the anti-authoritarian, anti-war stance Benton and Thompson were trying to create, that resonated with me. And the Freak Power campaign, the idea that freaks could have power, Benton’s posters gave voice to that.” (Though not entirely successfully: Watkins notes that Benton made posters for 19 campaigns before one of his candidates won an election.)

“Artist/Activist” – a lavish 188-page book published by the local People’s Press – makes the case that Benton should be remembered even beyond his involvement in Aspen politics and his long-standing anti-war activism. The book includes an introduction by Hal Elliott Wert, a history professor at the Kansas City Art Institute who has written a recent book on Barack Obama’s posters. Wert’s piece connects Benton’s posters to German and Chinese propaganda art, and praises his craftsmanship and the potency of his communication. (“Artist/Activist” also features a foreword by George Stranahan of People’s Press, and poems by Woody Creeker Joe Henry, both of whom were friends of Benton.)

The book’s later sections feature Benton’s less issue-oriented work. Some include text (by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jesus and John Denver), many include Benton’s signature circle shape, and others are pure abstraction. A final section has photos of the small handful of buildings that Benton, who trained as an architect, created in Aspen. Each one is eye-catching and memorable. The work adds up to a decisive, strong vision of the world that didn’t waver, even as he picked new enemies (Nixon, pro-growth factions in Aspen) and new forms of expression (paintings, monotypes).

Watkins believes that Benton didn’t get his due while alive. When he turned to fine-art paintings later in his career, galleries weren’t much interested. But Watkins also believes that what kept Benton from being popular in his art is also what makes him worth remembering now.

“Benton never compromised his ideals and beliefs,” Watkins said. “He never sold out. In one quote, he says, ‘I could get in tight with a bunch of rich people and make a lot of money. But that’s not what I came here for.’

“That didn’t matter to him. He wanted to be a pure artist and make things he believed in. In today’s day and age, there aren’t a lot of people like that. I think this book will open people’s eyes to how talented he was.”

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