Library Hosts Retrospective of Ralph Steadman’s Distinctive Artwork
Amid the infighting, flesh pressing and delegate swapping of our country’s last contested political convention — the Republicans’ Ford-vs.-Reagan runoff in Kansas City in 1976 — British illustrator Ralph Steadman roamed Kemper Arena and the surrounding West Bottoms for his own inimitable take on American history.
You might know the name. If not, chances are you’d recognize the distinctive lines and ink splatters that mark Steadman’s art, in particular his exquisitely grotesque drawings for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other works by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Steadman had another collaborator of note in Kansas City, covering the convention for Rolling Stone magazine with former White House counsel and Watergate figure John Dean. Dean wrote a first-person piece, “Rituals of the Herd.” Steadman produced a series of characteristically off-center illustrations ranging from horned delegates being herded, cow-like, into a stock pen to a lone, sign-toting demonstrator looking through a chain-link fence at a couple of dour law-enforcement types, billy clubs hanging prominently at both of their sides.
Those images are among more than 100 original works featured in a special touring exhibition, Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective, filling the downtown Central Library for more than three months this summer. The collection will occupy both formal art galleries and spill into the first-floor grand foyer, Kirk Hall, from June 1 to Sept. 8.
The Kansas City Public Library is one of a limited number of venues nationwide chosen to host the exhibition, which spent the previous 2 1/2 months at the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington. Selections span Steadman’s career of more than 60 years.
His drawings from the ’76 convention — about a dozen of them — are being shown only in Kansas City.
“We’re beyond thrilled, especially with the opportunity to give Kansas City an exclusive look at Ralph Steadman’s work from such a seminal moment in the city’s history,” says Anne Ducey, the Library’s exhibits director. “His range is so broad. He’s probably best known for his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, but he also has illustrated literary works such as Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland and has written memoirs and children’s books.
“I don’t know if there’s a better place than a public library to celebrate his work and his life.”
Steadman, who turns 83 in May, rose to prominence with his illustrations for a piece Thompson wrote on the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly — later heralded as the beginning of gonzo journalism. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was released a year later. The unlikely friendship between artist and writer lasted more than three decades, until Thompson’s death in 2005.
Drawings from the Derby and for Fear and Loathing are included in the retrospective. So are Steadman’s earliest published cartoon in 1956; his work for Private Eye, Punch and Rolling Stone magazines; images of extinct and imaginary birds created for his book Extinct Boids; a selection of scathing political cartoons; and drawings inspired by television’s Breaking Bad series.
Born in England and raised in Wales, Steadman lives with his wife and continues to work today in Kent, England.
He’s a little hazy on his four sweltering days in Kansas City in August 1976, his only trip and stay here (he thinks). But Steadman remembers Dean, whose story in Rolling Stone made waves. It included a vulgar and racially insensitive quote from an unnamed Cabinet official ultimately identified as Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who resigned within days.
“It was easier working with Hunter,” Steadman says, perhaps unexpectedly given Thompson’s manic personality and habits. “I think we had more in common, actually. I think he wanted more from me than John Dean. . . . I spoke more with Hunter than I ever did with Dean.”
Dean, now 80, lives in Beverly Hills, California, “and we’ve not been conversing for years,” Steadman says.
It has been more than 14 years since Thompson took his own life at his home in Woody Creek, California, and he remains central to Steadman’s thoughts and psyche.
“I wrote a book, The Joke’s Over, about it. And in a way, it was over. When that happened, I just felt part of me went with him,” Steadman says. “I didn’t appreciate the fact that he’d done that, left me high and dry, as it were. We hadn’t done all that we were going to do.
“I think he’d be quite interested to know how much he’s still remembered and how much people think about him.”
Steadman is leaving his own imprint, and not just as the artistic yin to Thompson’s literary yang. His retrospective underscores that.