I’ve Never Seen My Work Better Displayed — Patrick Oliphant

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When it was announced in 2018 that renowned political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant was donating his archive of nearly 7,000 drawings, watercolors, prints, sculptures, and sketchbooks to the UVA Library, plans for an exhibition were almost immediately in the works. In a sense, the plans had begun as early as 2009 when Oliphant, visiting UVA for a retrospective of the George W. Bush years, gave talk-and-draw demonstrations inviting audiences into a creative process he said was fueled by anger. “I bring myself to a boil every day,” he said. “It doesn’t take much.” UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs’ emphasis on the history of the American presidency and the access to the artist’s work offered by the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library made UVA the perfect repository.

From late September of 2019 until COVID-19 suspended public viewing, the major exhibition, “Oliphant: Unpacking the Archive,” treated visitors to Oliphant’s creative uses of anger, juxtaposing the retired political satirist’s trenchant pen-and-ink observations of the political scene with his works in fine arts media — sculpture, contour painting, and watercolor. These works, displayed for the first time alongside artifacts tracking the arc of Oliphant’s half-century career, revealed the collection’s rich potential for research and teaching in fields ranging from art history and politics to rhetoric and media studies.

The exhibition, curated by Special Collections Curator Molly Schwartzburg and University Professor of Art History Elizabeth Hutton Turner, featured sculptures of a number of past presidents. These included Richard Nixon, hands overhead in his famous V for victory parting shot, flashed while leaving Washington in disgrace after Watergate; Jimmy Carter, a tiny figure with legs dangling over the edge of his presidential pedestal; and Bill Clinton, a sexual libertine sculpted after a photo of the real-life Billy the Kid, with six-gun positioned suggestively in front and a cigar in his right hand.

In drawings and paintings, Oliphant depicted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as a profane and effete St. Francis, extending his middle finger to a perching bird while extending the pinky of his other hand; Ronald Reagan as Slim Pickens’ Cold War cowboy riding a hydrogen bomb to world destruction in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”; and Barack Obama as an enigmatic Easter Island figure inviting the public to see what they wanted to see in his presidency.

Display of depiction of a grinning Nelson Rockefeller in modern dress as St. Francis, extending his middle finger of his right hand upon which a bird perches, and extending the pinky of his left hand. Oliphant's image is displayed next to his inspiration, a news photo of Rockefeller flipping off some hecklers.

Oliphant’s 1985 color lithograph of “Nelson Rockefeller as St. Francis of Assisi” next to the news photo that inspired it: Vice President Rockefeller flipping off some hecklers.

Never-before-seen archival material included Oliphant’s early work as a young man when he opted for an education in the newsroom instead of college. His Pulitzer Prize certificate, a printing plate for the winning cartoon, and written comments reveal the artist’s ambivalence about awards and fame. Some of the most popular items were fan and hate mail — testimonial to Oliphant’s success at delighting the powerful people he caricatured, and infuriating audiences of every stripe.

Panels showing photographs of Oliphant’s home studio covered the gallery’s bay window, allowing in natural light while blocking direct sun. In front of the window was the only piece in the exhibition on loan from the artist: one of Oliphant’s drawing boards, a free-form mélange of seemingly unrelated drawings showing his imagination at play. When the exhibition’s curators welcomed Oliphant into the gallery for his first view of their work, he said, “It’s beautifully done. I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen my work better displayed.”

Viewers facing and discussing discussing a display of Oliphant's full-sized depiction of President Reagan as a Wild-West gunslinger with his hands poised over pistols in his holsters. To the right is another full-sized drawing of President George H. W. Bush, hands-on-hips, robed head-to-toe in Arab dress.

Viewers discuss Oliphant’s depiction of President Ronald Reagan as a Wild West gunslinger, displayed next to a drawing of President George H. W. Bush in Arab dress (“Reagan with Six-Shooters” and “Bush of Arabia,” both 1993).

A seated Pat Oliphant at a reception in the exhibition gallery autographs an exhibition catalog for a man and woman who look on, smiling.

Pat Oliphant autographs an exhibition catalog for fans during a reception in the main gallery of the Small Special Collections Library

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