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Philip Roth’s Brother Has No Complaint With the Billing

For Sanford Roth, getting second billing for his own show is exasperating, sometimes hilarious--and eventually profitable.

When a recent newspaper article introduced a profile of the artist with the headline “Philip Roth’s Brother, the Painter,” their father went into “uncontrollable spasms,” Sanford recalled with a laugh of his own. Forging a career in the shadow of his brother, the acclaimed and controversial author of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Our Gang” and a handful of other novels, has forced Roth to be philosophical.

“We live in a country that eats celebrities up,” the artist said by telephone from his studio in Chicago. “Since I’m not a celebrity and my brother is, that’s what I’m going to get. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s best to go at it with good humor, and, if it’s beneficial, terrific.”

It certainly hasn’t hurt so far. With the contemporary art scene operating much like a hyperactive star-making machine, good work alone is rarely enough to make an artist’s name stick. Circle Gallery, the Old Town showplace where an exhibition of Roth’s paintings opens today, has taken that into account in its promotional materials by highlighting the artist’s relation to a proven star.

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Although the strategy may prove irksome to Roth, 60, it should come as no surprise. Before devoting himself full time to painting in 1983, he spent 30 years as a creative director in the advertising business, devising clever ways to grab the public’s attention.

In his new, second career as an artist, some of the lessons and motivations of the first are peeking through.

“Advertising is a terrific discipline to learn to focus your thoughts,” Roth said. “You’ve got to marshal your energy to make it fit into a 30-second spot. That’s what I try to do with my paintings. I want them to grab you.”

In his works, bold-faced stenciled letters and numbers float amid patches of intense color, squeezed, smeared and stroked across the surface. Entire pages from the New York Times form collages on the canvases, their headlines often stifled by opaque veils of color. Others blare their news or pitch their products. But it is the feel of the newspaper, not the contents, that Roth said interests him.

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“I’m a child of the East, and I spent my life with the New York Times,” he said. “I have a real feeling for it.”

For Roth, the newspaper functions as an emblem of his feelings for the city itself, “the activities, the grime, the textures.”

In “A Walker in the City,” the word CITY , in big letters, hangs next to a childlike rendering of skyscrapers, a series of letters and numbers and patches of interlocking diamond patterns that evoke the quality of chain-link fences.

Echoing the urban landscape’s own spectrum, the painting’s pure gold and white upper region graduates downward into a flat, muddy gray, interrupted only by the obligatory plot of green in the center.

“I’ve always been intrigued with not just letter forms but the textures of living,” Roth said. “When you look out a window in an urban area, you see bits and chunks of things; one building will block out another.”

The Circle Gallery show’s paintings, from 1987, “are a lot about that, about what you feel when you’re walking through life.”

Roth extends the analogy further to liken the intuitive, additive process of his art-making to the building up of experiences in life itself. You start with a blank canvas, he said, and “you learn this and you learn that. You make mistakes, but you can’t erase them. You can only work with them. Each mistake I make is permanent. I prefer taking the chance and seeing what’s going to happen. The more open I am, the less calculating, the more I respond to what’s in front of me.”

The rawness and physicality of Roth’s work draws openly from the legacy of Abstract Expressionist painting, the dominant style when Roth began studying art. But, he added, “it’s also a New York sensibility. It’s an energy that one doesn’t leave behind when one moves to Chicago.”

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His incorporation of signs and symbols from popular culture--arrows, stars, stripes, letters and numbers--as well as the newspaper collages link Roth to a string of pop artists. Which artists have inspired him?

“Just about anybody whose work I’ve looked at,” he said. “I’m a blotter.”

Among the lesser-known influences was Roth’s Uncle Mickey, a painter, whose effect on the artist is described in a statement written for the show by brother Philip.

“The precedent Mickey furnished made painting seem to the family not so much a curiosity as a line of real work, and why no one seriously questioned Sandy’s aspirations (or mine), probably owes a good deal to our uncle’s example.

“To Sandy, Mickey would generously pass on his valuable old anatomy books while simultaneously warning him of the impossibility of being an artist, let alone making a living as one.”

Sanford took the books but not the advice. After 30 years in the big business of advertising, he found he could paint and prosper at it.

“I created a situation where I could get out and eat and paint. The desire to wallow in it overwhelmed me. People have said how courageous it was, but I really didn’t have any choice.


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