The artist Freda L. Reiter may not be a household name, but her work, particularly a series of drawings she complete in the mid-1970s, is widely recognized as an important visual record in the impeachment of President Nixon. In this interview with Marc H. Miller, the individual behind the online Gallery 98, I ask Miller about these drawings and what we can learn from Reiter’s images.
Hyperallergic: Why are these works important?
Marc H. Miller: Events and ideas can be recorded either through words or through images. Both means allow us to access the past. Freda Reiter’s pastel drawings for ABC-TV capture an important moment in our political history: the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, and the trials of his Watergate co-conspirators.
While the primary importance of the drawings is political, they also have artistic significance, not only due to their high quality, but also because they demonstrate how artists engaged with current events have increasingly needed to participate in new forms of mass communication.
H: What is the resonance of these sketches for today?
MHM: These Watergate drawings are obviously of particular interest today because they correspond to the current political situation. They remind us that 45 years ago another Congress set out to impeach another president. For those who would now like to see President Trump removed, Watergate is a story that inspires hope.
One of Reiter’s drawings shows the Supreme Court hearing that ultimately ruled against Nixon’s claim of executive privilege and led to the release of the incriminating White House tapes that forced his resignation. Most of the drawings focus on the courtroom trials of the government officials who aided Nixon in his abuse of power. In total over 30 people (including Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff and Attorney General) were tried, convicted and sent to jail. Best of all is the drawing of Nixon shedding a tear as he signs his resignation letter from the presidency.
H: Why are they interesting to you?
MHM: In college I switched majors from political science to art history but I never lost interest in politics. My doctoral dissertation was on the portraits and pageantry connected to Lafayette’s Farewell Tour of America in 1824–25, which was essentially the 50th anniversary of American independence. As a curator I’ve often turned to subjects where art and politics are interconnected. Back in 2012 Hyperallergic covered an exhibition I curated on the political cartoons associated with the controversial presidential election of 1912.
Curiously, I discovered Reiter’s work when I was exploring a totally different aspect of art. While working on an exhibition about the jazz musician Louis Armstrong I became interested in the concept of drawing-from-life after encountering Leroy Neiman’s early nightclub drawings. I was thinking about courtroom illustration in this context when I chanced upon a small advertisement announcing the auction of the Freda Reiter Estate at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia. I was amazed at her skill and placed some bids. Although she had covered virtually every high profile trial from the 1950s through the mid-80s, I focused exclusively on the Watergate drawings, because they seemed to have the greatest historical value.
H: How do you understand these drawings within the history of art?
MHM: These are not works that fit easily into current definitions of fine art. They are best understood in the context of the pictorial press. At first sketch artists provided most of the illustrations for these new picture publications, but by the early years of the 20th century, photographers largely replaced them. The one exception was in courtrooms where cameras were expressly forbidden because of the distractions of flashbulbs and other types of artificial lighting. Although the technology of photography has improved considerably, cameras are still largely banned from courtrooms.
From a contemporary art perspective these courtroom illustrations raise a number of interesting questions. As one seeks to explain the lack of women and minority artists in museum collections, it becomes clear that many of the most talented worked in commercial art fields that have themselves been largely excluded. Working in the fine arts is something poor people couldn’t afford, but commercial art provided a regular paycheck. The irony is that in this post-pop period, fine artists regularly appropriate the work of commercial artists.
H: Can you tell us more about Freda Reiter?
MHM: An interesting fact about Freda Leibovitz Reiter (1919–86) is that she had a twin sister Ida Leibovitz Dengrove (1990–2005) who was also a successful courtroom illustrator. Even as young teens the twins were famous for their ability to draw from life. Both went to art school in Philadelphia in the late 1930s, and studied for a summer with Diego Rivera in Mexico. Their early work reflected that era’s representational art which often focused on social themes. Reiter discovered the field of courtroom illustration in 1949 when she began doing black-and-white sketches for the Philadelphia Inquirer; she switched to color pastels after moving to ABC-TV in 1966. Dengrove only began her career as a courtroom artist in 1972 when she took a job with NBC-TV.
The pressure of working for competing television networks during the Watergate trials eventually led to a complete break between the twins. The culprit was the disgraced Attorney General John Mitchell who according to Dengrove’s daughter winked and flirted with her mother during court hearings. However, he hated Reiter, whom he accused of relaying a comment by his lawyer that she had overheard to Sam Donaldson, the ABC reporter covering the trial. When an Associated Press reporter asked Mitchell which of the two courtroom artists, Ida or Freda, he preferred, his sexist reply was that Ida was not only a much better artist but also looked ten years younger than Freda, which sparked long simmering resentments between the sisters. Mitchell served 19 months in prison for his Watergate crimes.