Billed as the two-fisted art attack, painter Denny Dent made his name creating quick-draw portraits to live music, sometimes before thousands of concertgoers.
Using as many as three brushes in each hand, Dent splashed paint over sprawling canvases and himself, with subjects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to John Lennon to President Bill Clinton.
Dent was more a performance artist than studio painter, and after his death in 2004 at age 55, people wanting to view his work usually had to turn to YouTube. Now the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, not far from where Dent lived in Denver, is showing his first career retrospective. "Two-Fisted Art Attack: Denny Dent Retrospective" runs through Aug. 29.
Among those who paint to live music, Dent is a Harry Houdini among David Blaines and David Copperfields, said Keith "Scramble" Campbell, guest curator for the exhibit and a painter who works during live concerts.
"This guy is the pioneer of this art form," Campbell said.
That includes using the whole body to paint.
"There's a big difference between painting from the wrist and going like this," Campbell said, punching and kicking in the air. "He'd grab three brushes and go at it."
Dent was a high school dropout who grew up without much money in Oakland, Calif. He got caught up in the "craziness" of the 1960s and was getting by with short-lived jobs in commercial art when a Las Vegas radio station planned a 1981 vigil on the anniversary of John Lennon's death, said Dent's widow, Ali Christine Flores-Dent.
He asked if he could paint at the vigil as he would often do while hanging out with friends - on the spot, music playing, ambidextrously, talking to people. The station agreed and called him the "two-fisted art attack," a name that stuck. Dent painted two portraits of Lennon, shouting about what Lennon and his message of peace meant to him.
A promoter saw the audience's ravenous response and helped Dent launch a career that had him opening for such artists as The B-52's and Miles Davis, performing in front of about 300,000 people at Woodstock in 1994, painting Clinton's portrait on the White House lawn. Other subjects included John Elway and John Travolta, their portraits stamped with Dent's hand print.
Dent performed hundreds of shows around the world, some earning him about $20,000. His artwork could sell for around $40,000. He died a week before his 56th birthday after suffering a heart attack and kidney failure.
During his shows, Dent would exhort his audiences to unleash their creativity.
"I don't want to yell in your ear," Flores-Dent said with a laugh. "But he'd say things like, 'Wake up! Are you awake? Are you alive?' He was basically wanting to wake up the dreamer inside of people."
Dent's images would emerge in what seemed to be abstract shadows, then develop into spot-on likenesses done with brushes or his hands dipped in paint. When the music stopped playing, Dent stopped painting.
Some practice pieces, done in his studio, are on display at the free Arvada exhibit.
The show also includes news articles, a collection of his brushes and paint cans, two videos and one of his paint-stained suits, post-performance. There's also a rarely seen collection of airbrush paintings, a tissue collage of Albert Einstein and sketches from a proposal for a one-man Broadway show.
Flores-Dent provides audio commentary.
"He was in a tremendously sad space before he started his career," she said. "He was just feeling like he was not going anywhere. He had forgotten he had such a gift."
"I can't tell you how happy he was doing what he ended up doing," she said.