Freda Reiter, President Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman in Oval Office, Recreation of 1973 conversation, drawn to accompany television playback of Nixon White House tapes during the 1974 trial. Recreation of 1973 conversation, drawn to accompany television playback of Nixon White House tapes during the 1974 trial. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″ (all images courtesy online Gallery 98, and used with permission)

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.

Freda Reiter, Nixon, Colson on Phone, Recreation of 1973 conversation, drawn to accompany television playback of Nixon White House tapes during the 1974 trial, Courtesy online Gallery 98. Recreation of 1973 conversation, drawn to accompany television playback of Nixon White House tapes during the 1974 trial. As Nixon’s special counsel and designated “hatchet man,” Colson had been involved in the establishment of the White House Plumbers, and the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The conversation might be that of March 21, 1973, which was played back during the trial. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

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.

Freda Reiter, White House Plumbers, Courtesy online Gallery 98.
On July 12, 1974, these four members of the “White House Plumbers” were convicted in the 1971 burglary of the office of Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. G. Gordon Liddy, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, and (right) Ehrlichman, c. July 12, 1974. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

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.

The artist twins, Ida Libby Dengrove and Freda L. Reiter, c. 1970s. Both worked as courtroom illustrators for the competing television networks of ABC and NBC. Freda L. Reiter (1919 – 1986)  is one of a number of talented women artists who worked as courtroom illustrators, a group that also included her equally successful twin sister, Ida Libby Dengrove (1919 – 2005). (image courtesy Marc H. Miller)

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.

Gallery 98 currently has an online exhibition of Reiter’s work.

Freda Reiter, Guards Outside Grand Jury Room. The secrecy of the grand jury hearings added even more suspense to the Watergate story. Barred from the proceedings, Reiter captured the heightened security and tension around the proceedings, as in this drawing of two guards outside the grand jury room. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Empty Grand Jury Room. Outside observers were barred from the grand jury hearings, but Reiter did her best to provide illustrations for the ongoing television coverage, gaining access to the empty grand jury room. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Prosecutor Jill Wine-Volner Questions Jeb Magruder. Jeb Stuart Magruder was deputy director of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. He had already pled guilty, and was serving his sentence, when he testified in the Watergate cover-up trial. Assistant special prosecutor Jill Wine-Volner questioned a number of witnesses during the trial. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Haldeman Questioned by Richard Ben-Veniste. The cover-up trial in 1974 was centered on Nixon’s closest advisors, among them chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, cross-examined by assistant special prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste in a heated scene. Reiter includes Haldeman’s daughter Ann. Pastel Drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Dean Testifies at Trial of Dwight Chapin. John W. Dean III was a lead witness in several Watergate trials. As counsel to the President, Dean had been involved in the cover-up, before turning state witness. Dean’s youth and good looks made him an instant star of the Watergate coverage. Here, he testifies at the trial of Dwight Chapin, a deputy assistant to the President later convicted of lying to the grand jury. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Maureen Dean. Maureen Dean, the stylish wife of White House counsel John Dean, would herself become a celebrity, publishing a memoir, Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate, in 1975. Pastel Drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, St. Clair petitions Supreme Court. Nixon’s refusal to hand over the White House Tapes, under a claim of “executive privilege,” led to the Supreme Court case United States vs. Nixon. White House special counsel James St. Clair’s arguments proved unsuccessful, with the Supreme Court ruling against the president on July 24, 1974. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Haldeman listens to Nixon White House tapes. Central to the court case were Nixon’s secret White House audiotapes, admitted as evidence after the Supreme Court’s ruling on July 24, 1974. Headphones were distributed to everybody in the courtroom. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, John Mitchell listens to Nixon White House tapes. Central to the court case were Nixon’s secret White House audiotapes, admitted as evidence after the Supreme Court’s ruling on July 24, 1974. Headphones were distributed to everybody in the courtroom. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Judge John Sirica Instructs Watergate Jury. Judge Sirica submits the case to the jury, as defendants Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Gordon Strachan, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson listen. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Sirica reads verdict, 1974. The back of this drawing carries Reiter’s label “Sirica reads verdict, 1974,” but it’s difficult to establish which trial it depicts. Over the course of the year, Sirica presided over many Watergate-related trials and hearings, often involving minor players ready to plead guilty. Pastel Drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Richard Nixon, ‘Alone in Oval Office’, 1975. Titled “Alone in Oval Office,” this pastel imagines Nixon shedding a tear as he prepares to sign his letter of resignation. While the resignation took place on August 9, 1974, the drawing is dated 1975. Reiter might have prepared the drawing for a television program recapping the Watergate saga. Pastel drawing, 17″ x 14″

Freda Reiter, Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste addresses the jury with H.R. Haldeman and John Mitchell in the foreground and Judge Sirica in the background, 1974. A chart shows the chain of command for the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Pastel drawing, 17” x 14”

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.