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The artist friends and foes of Philip Roth

2 June 2018

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

The late Philip Roth folded what he knew about artists into his fiction. Roth’s friends included several artists, notably R.B. Kitaj, who drew memorable portraits of the novelist and was, at least in part, the model for Mickey Sabbath, the raucous protagonist of Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Another friend was Philip Guston, the writer’s near neighbour in Woodstock, New York. Indeed, so close were the two Philips in the early ’70s that Guston, then at something of a low point in his career, began to make caustic drawings inspired by Our Gang (1971), Roth’s absurdist satire of the Nixon administration.

Roth wasn’t always so keen on contemporary art, however. In 2012, an artist called Bryan Zanisnik staged a performance in the course of which, clad in swimming trunks, he sat in a large glass container silently reading Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973). Roth was not amused: the work was immediately greeted by a cease and desist letter from the author’s lawyers.

‘It was very strange because the lawyers [representing Roth] came and served the cease and desist letter within the first half-hour of the opening’, Zanisnik told Artnet in 2015. ‘I was in this 12-foot container and I was kind of raised above the crowd. They came in and said “we’re here to serve Bryan Zanisnik with this legal document,” and security said “well, he’s not available right now.” And they’re like “he isn’t here?” And security said, “no, actually, he’s inside that glass container”.’ Some things, as they say, are stranger than fiction…

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