This communiqué from Ralph Steadman accompanies “Drawing Breath: A Retrospective Whisper,” currently on view at the Art Institute of Boston:
The last time I was in Boston I was trying to avoid the airport police while waiting to board a plane for New York and I was coming down from a savage trip on Psylocybe Cubensis (that’s more or less how you spell it!) an hallucinogenic by-product of a mushroom. The year was 1970 and it was my second assignment with Hunter S. Thompson. [. . .] It was somewhere around the birth of Gonzo and we had been having a hell of a time. Well, I’m back!
Welcome back, Ralph!
The show, which runs through March 19, includes 65 works on paper by the prolific British illustrator best known for his Gonzo collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson that began in 1970 when they were both hired by Scanlan’s Monthly to cover the Kentucky Derby. The result of that collaboration, published in Rolling Stone under the title “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” led to many other projects, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Curse of Lono. Steadman is currently working on a biography of his friend and co-collaborator, who killed himself a year ago February 20. In honor of Thompson, I had considered submitting unedited notes written in a drug-addled state for my review. However, to not comment on Steadman’s astonishing work would surely be a crime. (That, and I’m quite certain my editor here at Big RED wouldn’t send me on all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii or Las Vegas or somewhere else warm and sunny. My generation doesn’t party quite like they did in the 70’s, either.)
Whether depicting former President Ronald Reagan as a vampire about to sink his teeth into Lady Liberty (“Reagan’s newest latest close-up,” 1980) or Salman Rushdie (“New Yorker, reject,” 2005) literally speared by his pen, Steadman confirms that his pen really is mightier than the sword. His comments on the American political landscape—the aforementioned portrait of Reagan and his brilliant portrayal of George W. Bush as “Suicide Bomber of Baghdad”—also reflect a view of America that is uniquely British, that is to say, acerbic and incisive. A 2001 portrait of British Prime Minister Tony Blair simply titled “Free Iraq” depicts a porcine-like, almost featureless—and perhaps soulless—leader. Even Steadman’s illustrations for children’s books, such as Alice Through the Looking Glass, have an underlying wickedness. The wasp in “Alice in the Wasp” (1972) is huge and menacing, while Alice is dark-eyed and diminutive, her tights echoing the wasp’s stinger. This is no saccharine-doused, Disneyfied version of Alice and her animal companions.
A particular favorite of mine is “Francis Bacon’s Christmas Dinner” (1967), a group portrait in the style of the British painter. In it, Baconesque figures—including Steadman’s take on Bacon’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X, itself a study of Velazquez’s portrait of the religious leader–crowd around a table in a violent purple and green room. It’s evident in Steadman’s mark-making that he shares Bacon’s aesthetic, who sought to avoid illustration in his painting, but rather to convey meaning through the use of irrational marks. More recent work includes illustrations from his 2005 book Untrodden Grapes, a wild tour of vineyards across several continents. The man and his vintage grape-crusher in “Algerian grape crusher, Gascony” (1995) appear as distorted, frenetic versions of themselves, while another illustration from the book, “Les Clos de Paulilles, Rousillon” (1995), depict storm clouds rolling in over a village bathed in a shocking orange first light.
Unfortunately, the opening reception wasn’t terribly exciting—Steadman didn’t fly in from Kent to attend as I’d been secretly hoping he would. However, the wine was intoxicating, as was the conversation. I think the artist would have been pleased.
“Drawing Breath: A Retrospective Whisper from Ralph Steadman” is on view through March 19th at AIB Main Gallery
All images are courtesy of the artist and The Art Institute of Boston.