Times Staff Writer

The artworks didn’t arrive in time for the opening reception Sunday afternoon but the artist, Anthony Benedetto, did--in a sleek Navy blue limousine--for his first visit to this North San Diego County community.

At the Art Loft Gallery, visitors were waiting for the celebrity better known as Tony Bennett, singer. They clustered outside the gallery window, watching, while a San Diego television station taped an interview inside, waiting for a chance to tell Bennett about the last time they had seen him in concert. A portable stereo played Bennett’s songs from the sidewalk.

Despite the absence of the promised oil paintings, temporarily lost in transit from the East Coast, many appeared content with the one Benedetto piece of art on display--his impressionistic landscape of southern France, repeated 18 times in signed lithographs and posters in a tent set up for the reception, and in the gallery.

Only one visitor returned to his car in disgust. (The works finally arrived at the end of the reception about 6 p.m. Gallery owner Bill Tatum said he did not know how long they would remain on view.)


Unruffled and relaxed despite the snafu--"when we travel we are used to this"--Bennett talked with visitors, many in their 50s and 60s, from Oceanside, Chula Vista, La Mesa and Solana Beach. They were eager to tell of the time a niece kissed him on a plane, or when one of them took in his performance in Chicago or spied him at an art supply store in New York.

They found him to be unpretentious--"down to earth"--and warm.

He signed posters of the painting that has made his work accessible to the public. “It is a main centerpiece for a whole new career for me,” he said.

Until the printing of the poster, only his oil paintings were available--at prices that now range from $15,000 to $30,000.


Bennett said he began drawing and singing when he was 5: “I have been painting my whole life” but, unlike his singing career, “it didn’t come into focus until 1985.”

He studied at the High School of Industrial Arts in New York with the aim of becoming a commercial artist, but he was steered into singing by a teacher who liked his enthusiasm and voice. “It sure made my art teacher mad,” he said Sunday.

Although he said he has been committed to both singing and painting for 27 years, only last year did he realize that the public recognized his artwork, and only recently did he privately accept himself as a serious artist. He uses his real name, Benedetto, to sign his artworks (Bob Hope suggested the name Bennett early in his singing career).

He said Johnny Carson had a lot to do with the public recognition. “He would invite me on his show and said bring your paintings. Johnny liked them.”


Although he said his style is evolving--"I gravitate toward the style of whoever I am studying"--it is recognized as impressionistic. He recently studied portraiture with Basil Balin in New York. A Benedetto portrait of Mario Cuomo will hang in the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York.

Rather than an adjunct to his singing, Bennett now sees his art as an equal, complementary career.

“It’s a great balance. In one sense I am in front of thousands of people performing.” In contrast, he said, “painting is very relaxing. It’s marvelous to listen to classical, pop or jazz music and get inspired by the music to paint.”

He sketches and visits museums when he travels for singing engagements and carries a collapsible studio, paper, still and video cameras to record scenes he will later paint.


The two careers now mesh in a busy road schedule. He was performing at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel Saturday night before traveling down to the Solana Beach opening Sunday afternoon.

His greatest thrill last year was meeting artist David Hockney at a Bennett concert in Westwood. “He is an innovative painter, the heir to Picasso,” Bennett said. “He is breaking all the rules and giving a challenge to other artists.”

Although Bennett reached international stardom as a singer in 1962 with his hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” nearing a sense of success with his artwork has been slow. His works were first recognized by critics in a Chicago exhibit in 1977.

He said it was just last week that he got the vote he had been waiting for from Rudolph de Harak, a graphic artist whose works have been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. De Harak, who attended art school with Bennett, has been his toughest critic and teacher.


“He is the best graphic artist in the world,” Bennett said. “He has been very tough on me. Six months ago he said, ‘You’re becoming a Sunday painter.’

“About a week ago he said, ‘You’re a very good painter.’

“It was like Christmas, a salvation.”

Years of doubts now calmed, artist Bennett said he now has confidence that “I know what I’m doing. Now all I have to do is roll with it. I wondered if I would reach the standard. Now I feel uninhibited.”


Bennett’s latest record album, “The Art of Excellence” will be released in May, and an international tour follows that will include his concert debut at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.