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Visual arts | Cartoonist Drew Friedman depicts presidents, warts and all, in exhibit at Ohio State

The Columbus Dispatch logo The Columbus Dispatch 12/1/2019 By By Peter Tonguette For The Columbus Dispatch, The Columbus Dispatch
Ronald Reagan wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Ronald Reagan, by Drew Friedman © The Columbus Dispatch/The Columbus Dispatch/TNS Ronald Reagan, by Drew Friedman

Last month, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum was transformed into something akin to the Hall of Presidents.

Visitors to Disney World might remember that famed attraction, offering America's 45 chief executives in animatronic form.

The exhibit "Drawn to Presidents" — on view through Feb. 9 at the museum on the campus of Ohio State University — is similarly comprehensive: An entire gallery wall is taken up with cartoonist Drew Friedman's renderings of each of the nation's presidents, from Washington to Trump.

Unlike the Disney attraction, Friedman — a prolific satirical artist whose work has appeared in periodicals ranging from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone — does not seek to deify his subjects.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Richard Nixon, by Drew Friedman © The Columbus Dispatch/The Columbus Dispatch/TNS Richard Nixon, by Drew Friedman

"I'm presenting people realistically," Friedman said in a recent interview with The Dispatch. "I'm not glossing over any defects in their faces."

Indeed, Friedman's drawings — which were created for the cartoonist's recent book "All the Presidents" — frequently reflect the strain felt by America's commanders-in-chief.

The oft-commented-upon burden of the job comes across in the lined brow and pursed lips of Abraham Lincoln, while the weight of Watergate is expressed in the moodily contemplative stance of Richard Nixon, who is drawn holding his clasped hands to his chin.

The variety of presidential poses Friedman captures is one of the pleasures of the exhibit: a grouchy-looking Theodore Roosevelt seems to be slouched forward in his seat, but Franklin D. Roosevelt warmly leans his head forward — the sort of stance one might expect from the president who held "fireside chats."

Other presidents are depicted in more contented states of mind, including a broadly smiling Ronald Reagan. Earlier presidents, such as John Adams, are sometimes drawn more stiffly, reflecting the fact that Friedman would have had fewer visual references for inspiration. There are exceptions, though, including Martin Van Buren — he of the ungovernable hair — and a taciturn-faced John Tyler.

Abraham Lincoln wearing a suit and tie: Abraham Lincoln, by Drew Friedman © The Columbus Dispatch/The Columbus Dispatch/TNS Abraham Lincoln, by Drew Friedman

Friedman's personal political perspective cannot be easily discerned from the drawings, because all of the presidents are portrayed in equally unflattering detail.

"I didn't want to come across as cruel when I was drawing everyone," he said. "I didn't want to make it clear who I liked or who I disliked."

Yet there is nothing tame about the works that round out the show. Lining other gallery walls are examples of Friedman's contributions to various magazines, in which he has made something of a specialty in sending up presidents.

Here, too, the artist's own politics are obscured, though: Neither Republicans nor Democrats are spared.

In fact, the Clinton presidency is shown to be a particularly fertile period for Friedman. In one cartoon from The New York Times Magazine, Bill and Hillary Clinton are shown enjoying a movie, with the president cradling an ample bucket of popcorn and the first lady laughing a bit too effusively.

Another cartoon, from Time magazine, expresses Clinton's estrangement from the press: The president is depicted housebreaking his new dog using newspapers scattered on the floor.

For Texas Monthly, Friedman gave his own spin on an image from the movie "Dr. Strangelove," swapping Slim Pickens with George W. Bush riding a nuclear warhead; and for the New York Observer, the artist presented a pre-presidential Donald Trump in a melee with his ex-wife Ivana.

Included in the show is a case of Friedman's own political memorabilia, ranging from buttons for candidates to mass-market paperbacks, including "More Kennedy Wit" and the rather ominously titled "The Wit and Humor of Richard Nixon."

A selection of Topps trading cards of presidents and a Jimmy Carter-themed coloring book underscore that this exhibit as a must-see for political junkies.


©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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