Will Philip Roth Sue Artist Bryan Zanisnik a Second Time?

The upside to being sued by a famous writer is artistic inspiration.

Philip Roth. Photo: Wikipedia.
Bryan Zanisnik, A Cup of Coffee For the Man in My Office (2013). To be shown at NADA 2015.

Bryan Zanisnik, A Cup of Coffee For the Man in My Office (2013).
Image: Courtesy the artist.

Being sued by world-famous author Philip Roth has its perks: just ask New York-based artist Bryan Zanisnik, who is transforming Roth’s vendetta against him into an exhibition dedicated to the writer at Miami’s Locust Projects early next year.

In 2012, Roth threatened legal action against Zanisnik over a performance that took place at the Abrons Art Center in New York. The artist sat inside a large Plexiglas and wood container silently reading Roth’s 1973 homage to baseball, The Great American Novel, while baseball cards and money whirred into the air around him, propelled by a single, hardworking fan.

“It was very strange because the lawyers came and served the cease and desist letter within the first half-hour of the opening,” Zanisnik told artnet News in a phone interview. “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.'”

The law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy eventually stopped pursuing the suit. After all, there is no legal precedent to support suing someone for silently reading a novel, even as part of a public performance.

Philip Roth. Photo: Wikipedia.

Philip Roth.
Photo: Wikipedia.

The whole interaction understandably piqued Zanisnik’s interest in the famed author, who coincidentally announced his retirement from writing shortly after the performance. And despite Roth’s apparently litigious and argumentative nature (the same year, he wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker when they wouldn’t allow him to edit his own entry), Zanisnik is not afraid to invoke his reluctant muse once again.

“Initially, I was really interested in his work because I felt there were a lot of overlaps between his writing practice and my own visual practice. He’s from New Jersey, as I am, he has his own absurd and dark sense of humor, which is something that I deal with in my work. He writes a lot about sports and family and Americana, and these are all things that really resonate with me,” Zanisnik explains.

His upcoming show, which will open at Locust Projects on January 30 and have a photo-based preview in the gallery’s booth at NADA Miami in December, features hundreds of Roth novels embedded inside several 15-foot drywall and plaster sculptural installations. The show will also have a “Roth reading room,” where visitors can explore the New Jersey native’s extensive oeuvre.

Bryan Zanisnik, Edinburgh Rock Hey (2013). To be shown at NADA 2015.

Bryan Zanisnik, Edinburgh Rock Hey (2013). To be shown at NADA 2015.

Zanisnik anticipates possible legal action from Roth and his camp regarding the upcoming show, but feels confident after having consulted with his legal counsel.

“Legally, we’re not doing anything that is at all even a gray area, but knowing his history, that doesn’t mean he won’t respond,” Zanisnik says with a hint of giddy anticipation.


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