If you want to curate an exhibition of vintage artwork related to the unorthodox and self-proclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, prepare for the process itself to become a bit, well, gonzo.
Daniel Joseph Watkins learned this lesson the hard way. He had to figure out how to move Freak Power, an exhibit by his Aspen-based resident of the visually stunning campaign posters designed for Thompson’s 1970 run for the Colorado County Sheriff gallery to Poster house in Manhattan, where it’s open until August 15th.
The posters designed and printed by the artist Thomas W. Benton, a close friend of Thompsons and a Californian compatriot turned Aspen activist, fused heartbreaking campaigns (“Sell Aspen or Save It”) with visceral images (a clenched fist against a sheriff’s badge). Surviving specimens in pristine condition now sell for over $ 25,000. But that price pales in comparison to the intense emotional attachment of the owners. “It would have been a lot easier to borrow a Warhol or a Rothko from some of these people,” laughed Watkins.
“Unfortunately, Benton became a drug addict later in his life and had traded and sold his artwork to several drug dealers,” he continued. One of these figures was ready to borrow several important pieces of benton. But he made it clear that filing an insurance claim would be the least of a problem for Watkins in case something should happen to them.
A duly warned Watkins believed that ultimately there was someone he could hire to send the posters east: himself. So last month he loaded a U-Haul with the contents of the exhibition and personally drove it on the 30th Hours and nearly 2,000 miles to Poster House’s front door.
“At night I slept with the artwork in the back of the truck. I had a small bed there with a heated electric blanket. And I had a club, ”he remembers soberly. “I had a friend who followed me in another car in case something went wrong, and we stopped in several Walmart parking lots to sleep.”
Poster House, the first museum in the United States dedicated to the art of the poster, Opened in Chelsea in 2019, and the exhibition curated together with the artist Yuri Zupancic is one of three that can be seen in their gallery rooms. In addition to three dozen Benton posters, this exhibition includes kinetic, ink-splattered drawings by Ralph Steadman, whose illustrations accompanied many of Thompson’s articles; Campaign trail photos by Aspen photojournalists David Hiser and Bob Kruger; and editions of The Aspen Wall Poster, a broadsheet newspaper designed by Benton and written by Thompson.
For Angelina Lippert, chief curator of the Poster House, the variety of materials in the exhibition offers a fascinating dichotomy. “Hunter S. Thompson is a messy character,” she said. “We’ve all seen ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'” the 1998 film with Johnny Depp, who portrays a disturbed Thompson. Steadman’s frenetic drawings reflect this wild personality. But “in comparison, all Benton posters are so reserved, quiet and direct,” Lippert continues. “It’s an incredible contrast to see these two guys express the same ideas in so different ways.”
To be fair, Thompson as a candidate couldn’t have been more different than Depp’s on-screen cartoon. Instead, as seen in open footage of Watkins’ own “Freak Power” documentary (2020), which ran daily as part of the Poster House show, Thompson was thoughtful and articulate – though his take on politics could be playful. (Thompson prepared for a public debate with the incumbent sheriff and secretly shaved his head so he could go on stage and – in the conservative parlance of the era – speak derogatory of “my long-haired opponent.”) Symbolism and rejected the mayoral candidacy by Norman Mailer in New York City in 1969 as “a form of revenge rather than electoral politics”. Thompson ran to win.
His “freak power” ticket signaled a linchpin for the self-identity of many Aspenites – as a catalyst for a movement to preserve the local environment with severe restrictions on real estate development; overtaking a police agency that is considered to be completely out of control; and legalize marijuana use. Once ridiculed as mere “freak” matters, they have since been adopted by local law enforcement agencies or moved to the law books.
“Anyone who thinks I’m kidding is a fool,” one of his local newspaper advertisements said. “739 new registrations since the September area code are no joke in a county with a total of less than 3,000. So it seems time to give up bad humor and grapple with the strange possibility that the next sheriff in this county may very well be a lazy outlaw journalist with some very rude views on the lifestyle, law enforcement and political reality in America. “
In the end, Thompson fell behind as the county’s outskirts turned out to be strong against him, causing him to lose the election by nearly 7 percentage points. “We ran an honest campaign and that was the problem,” he quipped to The Associated Press.
Nonetheless, Watkins insists that you can lose a battle and still win the war: Thompson-affiliated candidates, drawing on his electoral base and a new series of Benton posters, took over the majority of the district commission in 1972 and the sheriff’s office in 1986 , the sheriff was a former Thompson campaign aide. The implementation of Thompson’s ideas, however, had its own consequences.
“There have been unintended consequences of some development constraints as they constrained supply so badly that demand went off the charts,” Watkins said of a resulting one casing crunch. “It made Aspen a more affluent place. People come to Aspen now and ask, ‘Where did all the hippies go?’ That is definitely a bit of bitterness and disappointment. “
Watkins hopes “Freak Power” will be Thompson’s. saves heritage from the cartoon-like mythology that has built up around him. “When I mention his name, people sometimes say, ‘You mean Hunter Thompson, the guy with the drugs and the guns and the madness?’ No, I mean Hunter Thompson, the forward-thinking political thinker who changed a community with a radical campaign. “
Until August 15th Poster House, 119 W. 23rd Street. 917-722-2439; posterhouse.org; Season tickets required.