The Crazy Never Die

Portrait of Hunter S. Thompson by Alan Apardi.

A peek at ‘Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson’

By Mariah Kline
Photos courtesy of
the Speed Art Museum

You may have noticed an inordinate number of Gonzo journalism-themed happenings in Louisville lately. From Churchill Downs to the Frazier History Museum, it seems everyone is celebrating the legacy of writer Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman. The Speed Art Museum is also in on the action with the upcoming “Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson.” Opening July 12, the exhibition will highlight the groundbreaking essays of Thompson through art created specifically for his works as well as the writer’s own photography.

The Police Convention. 1971. By Ralph Steadman. Loan courtesy of Joe Yasinski.

The Speed’s Gonzo journey first began last year when Juan F. Thompson, the late writer’s son who recently moved to Louisville, approached the staff about honoring his father’s work in some way.

“We started kicking around what we could do and how we could talk about Hunter S. Thompson in an art museum because it’s a very literary topic,” said Chief Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall. “We hit on the idea of doing an illustrated guide and really focusing on the years when he was everywhere all at once in American culture – from 1964 to 1974. We’re telling the story of those essays and why they were so important through the art that accompanied those works.”

The 10-year-span begins with Thompson’s documentation of his time with the Hell’s Angels, which resulted in the book “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.” Thompson took many of his own photographs during this time, several of which will be on display at the Speed. The curatorial team also gathered the entire suite drawings done by Steadman for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” all of which will be in the same place for the first time since they left the archives of “Rolling Stone.”

The Lizard Lounge. 1971. By Ralph Steadman. Loan courtesy of Joby Pritzker.

“I was really interested in exploring how a text and an image work together to strengthen an idea,” recalled Holmquist-Wall. “Hunter felt very strongly about the illustrations that accompanied his words.”

Fortunately for Thompson, he was paired with the perfect artist to interpret his words when Steadman accepted the assignment to follow the writer to the Kentucky Derby in 1970.

“Outside of someone like Lewis Carroll and John Tenneil with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ I’m hard pressed to think of another writer and illustrator relationship that is so strong,” Holmquist-Wall mused.

Where the exhibit’s timeline ends marks a beautifully serendipitous moment for world-renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. In 1974, she accompanied Thompson to Washington D.C. to cover the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Self-Portrait after beating by Hell’s Angels. Sept. 4, 1966. Image courtesy of the Estate of Hunter S. Thompson.

“Hunter was a famous procrastinator when it came to meeting his deadlines,” Holmquist-Wall laughed. “He missed his deadline to report on Nixon’s resignation, so the editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ actually gave the entire essay (space) to Annie Leibovitz. So, it’s her very first photo essay that appears in a magazine, and it kind of effectively launches her career.”

The Speed’s illustrated guide is just one piece in play during the Year of Gonzo. Over at the Frazier History Museum, visitors get a glimpse at Thompson’s run for office in Aspen, Colorado with “Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff.” This show takes a deep dive into his short-lived foray into politics and features iconic posters from another Thompson collaborator, Tom Benton.

Hell’s Angels, Orange Hat and Girl. Photos by Hunter S. Thompson. Loans courtesy of Juan F. Thompson.

The third exhibit in the Gonzo trifecta just recently wrapped at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, where “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective” displayed more than 100 of the artist’s original works. Visitors of all three exhibitions will receive a button at each museum, and those who collect all three will receive a free gift designed by Steadman himself. “Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide” will coincide with the ninth annual GonzoFest, which takes place on July 20 at the Louisville Free Public Library.

“All three of these shows tell completely different angles,” explained Holmquist-Wall. “This was a great opportunity with all of the institutions working together. We have the total support of Hunter’s son, Steadman’s daughter and Benton’s children. It’s been lovely to work on this project knowing that you have the blessing of the families involved.”

Holmquist-Wall recently had the chance to interview Steadman himself and give him a tour of the Speed. She’s thrilled to be partnering with the artist, the Frazier and the University of Kentucky to bring Gonzo enthusiasts a remarkable experience.

Hell’s Angels, Kissing Guys.

“The fact that we were able to pull off the feat of bringing all of these artworks together from this 10-year period is amazing,” she said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all of this in one place.” V

For more information on “Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson,” visit speedmuseum.org.