American Artist, Sculptor, Filmmaker and Musician
Southampton, Long Island
Summary of Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers was one of the most brash and brilliant figures of the post-war American art-world, an enfant terrible of the New York School, who rebelled against his Abstract Expressionist masters without ever abandoning the bold, gestural painting style he had learned in the painting classes of Hans Hoffman. A brilliant figurative artist who was seduced by the pop culture of the sixties, Rivers was adopted by the Pop Art generation of Warhol et al, but his continuing investment in an idea of the artist's touch, and his unique, expressive compositional style, meant that he never sat comfortably in that category either. While there is no doubting Warhol's assertion that Rivers's personality was "very Pop", he ultimately occupies a tricky and liminal position in the modern art world, on the boundary of abstraction and figuration, the serious and the throwaway, the Modernist and the Pop: of what the critic Clement Greenberg famously distinguished as "Avant-Garde and Kitsch".
- Bringing the iconography of pop culture into his abstract/figurative paintings, Rivers pre-empted the Pop Art explosion of the 1960s, when artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein began to subvert the taboos of Abstract Expressionism with their garish, figurative paintings incorporating the images and messages of a booming consumer culture. Rivers's continued expressive debt to teachers such as Hans Hoffman meant that he was never able to make the full-throttle jump into the world of pop culture that his contemporary Warhol did. In the end, Rivers's struggle was not against the Modernist avant-garde per se, but against the evacuation of the figurative - of all that was particular, sensual, and human - from the modern canvas.
- Rivers's work often incorporates text. With his Vocabulary Lesson portrait series he melded a post-Abstract-Expressionist figurative style with whimsical labels and messages, as if undermining the earnest credo that the abstract painting should exist in a space beyond language and rational interpretation. In fact, Rivers cut his teeth in a literary world as much as an artistic one: the friend and sometime lover of Frank O' Hara, he was also the portraitist of other noted poets such as Kenneth Koch, while his early work drew as much inspiration from novels and poetry as it did from painting.
- Sex was a major part of Larry Rivers's life. In works such as O' Hara Nude with Boots and Double Portrait of Berdie, we find him smashing sexual taboos: whether that meant the prohibition on gay love in post-war America or on painting your ageing ex-mother-in-law naked. Clearly, some of Rivers's anti-moralizing crusades have aged better than others, and his work in some instances raises significant questions about the instances where culture and the state should interpose on the artist's right to freedom of expression. His unexhibited video-series Growing, documenting the development of his teenage daughters' bodies, has been called child pornography by one of its subjects, and is one example of when Rivers's taboo-busting seems to have overstepped the mark.
Biography of Larry Rivers
Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, was born in the Bronx, New York in 1923, speaking only Yiddish until he was six years old. At the age of 17 he was reborn as Larry Rivers, a name given to him in a jazz club where he performed as a professional saxophonist.
Important Art by Larry Rivers
This vast canvas, dominated by ochres, whites and greens, depicts George Washington's journey across the Delaware River in 1776, to launch a surprise attack on British forces during the American Revolutionary War. The raw elements of a figurative painting are all here: we can clearly make out the soldiers, the horses, the water and sky. But River's penciled sketch-work remains visible all over the canvas, while the figures themselves appear to float in mid-air, and the paintwork is characterized by smears and visible brushwork.
Rivers painted this epic work after reading the famous Russian novel War and Peace (1869). He said: "I wanted to make a work of art that included some aspect of national life [...] It was like getting in the ring with Tolstoy." At the same time, the work makes an obvious art-historical wink to Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting of the same name, a Romantic history painting which anchored the crossing of the Delaware to nationalist historical myth. River's painting was an act of open rebellion against such mythmaking, and to properly understand the work, we need to examine the context of its composition. Painted less than a decade after the end of World War Two during which more than 400,000 American soldiers died, and as the McCarthyist purges approached their peak, Rivers was almost visibly dismantling the Washington narrative in order to poke a stick at American patriotism.
The work also represents River's declaration of independence against his Abstract-Expressionist peers, in its move back towards a kind of fractured figurativeness. Rivers said: "I wanted to do something that was nothing to do with them. That said I didn't believe in their ideas, that I thought they were full of shit. It was some kind of childish obstinacy. That I didn't need their values." In this sense, the piece should be assessed in relation to the emergence of pure abstraction as the dominant mode of modern art in America following the Second World War, through the success of figures such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. As art writer Carrie Rickey puts it, "[i]n his upbeat rendition of the solemn themes in Emanuel Leutze's well-known 1851 canvas, Mr. Rivers wedded representation with abstraction, parodied art history, anticipated by a decade the concerns of both the Pop and color-field painters and prophetically engaged in what post-modernists might call appropriation and deconstruction."
In this taboo-busting, whimsical work from 1954, the poet Frank O'Hara, Rivers's close friend and sometimes lover, is revealed in full-length posture standing naked - a better term than nude - with his arms clasped on top of his head, gazing unabashedly at the viewer. He is wearing only leather combat boots, one foot propped up on a breeze block. Rivers painted a number of portraits of O'Hara, but this is by far the most provocative.
This portrait reveals Rivers's raw talent as a portraitist and draughtsman, a talent which was unfashionable at a time when Abstract Expressionism still reigned supreme. Again, however, Rivers's rebellion was political as well as aesthetic: the overt homoeroticism of the work, that is, was particularly daring during the 1950s, the era not only of the Red Scare, but also of the so-called Lavender Scare. Being gay in 1950s America, just like being a Communist, was seen as a threat to national security, so much so that the Government launched a witch-hunt to out homosexuals and have them removed from their posts. Standing at 2.5 meters tall, this painting makes an imposing and provocative statement in an era long before personal identity - let alone gay identity - was a suitable subject for modern art. As art critic Ken Johnson explains, "[t]he way the young, muscular O'Hara stands with hands on his head and one foot up on a concrete block creates a casual sexual vitality that slyly subverts high-minded traditions of the academic nude."
A closer look at the painting will reveal a witty dialogue between 'high' and 'low' cultural references. As Johnson suggests, the portrait mimics an Old Masters' painting in some aspects of its composition, but O'Hara also seems to be posing in the style of a contemporary pin-up. For the sitter himself, "what Larry was trying to do was keep it from being academic. But at the same time getting in the ring with [Theodore] Géricault," the French Romantic portraitist. O'Hara and Rivers's relationship was defined by a meeting of the high and low-brow. The pair were formidable intellectuals, who would spend much of their time discussing literature and art. But they were also party boys: O' Hara, in particular, was famous for cruising for sex in downtown New York.
This striking work from 1959 depicts a frail man lying in a bed with a military jacket hanging by the USA, and Confederate flags adorning the walls. At the top of the composition we can see a crudely rendered impression of floral wallpaper. The painting is copied from an image in Life magazine, recreated in Rivers's own Abstract Expressionist style, with vivid use of color and bold brushstrokes creating blurred and confused features.
Rivers was intrigued by the mass circulation of imagery, and by the role art could play in the mythologization of history in popular consciousness. So when a centenarian from Mississippi claimed to be the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War, Rivers saw an opportunity to explore themes of patriotism and authenticity: "[t]here was this one guy left from the Civil War. Now he was a media thing immediately; the last Civil War veteran. So I began getting interested in him and I did paintings. Then he died. They started to look up his records and it turned out that maybe he lied - and the guy who was supposed to be the 'next-to-the-last' was actually the last. But this was covered up - and Mr. Walter Williams, I believe his name was, was buried with honors." The lack of factual clarity made the media-story more interesting to Rivers, an emblem of the way truth is often buried or altered for the sake of patriotism, and the veneration of national myths. He explored the same theme two years later with Final Veteran: The Last Civil War Veteran in the Coffin (1961), a more figuratively accurate work.
In stylistic terms, the decision to recreate an image directly from a newspaper itself makes a powerful statement on the entwinement of art and mass culture in post-war America, and predicts the more obvious maneuvers of Andy Warhol in a similar artistic space. But whereas Warhol would simply generate reams of screen-printed reproductions from the daily news, Rivers continued to bring a modicum of individual expressive spirit to the reproduction process, the blurred face reminiscent, for example, of Francis Bacon's works from the same period.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Larry Rivers
- In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American ArtBy Russell Ferguson
- Larry RiversBy Sam Hunter
- Larry Rivers: Art and the ArtistBy David Levy, Barbara Rose
- What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography of Larry RiversBy Larry Rivers and Arnold Weinstein
- Drawings and DigressionsBy Larry Rivers, John Ashbery, Carol Brightman
- Larry Rivers: Painting and Drawings, 1951-2001By Janis Gardner Cecil and Larry Rivers
- A Genius for the VulgarBy Carrie Rickey / New York Times / August 12, 1990
- An Artist Straddling the Fault-lines of ChangeBy Blake Gopnik / Washington Post / May 19, 2002
- At the Mad Fringes of ArtBy Peter Schjeldahlnov / New York Times / November 18, 1979
- Drug stores, jazz and a smoking Statue of Liberty: pop-art provocateur Larry Rivers - in picturesBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / August 31, 2017
- Larry Rivers after Crossing the DelawareBy Barbara Probst Solomon / Huffington Post / May 25, 2011
- Obituary: Larry Rivers, Artist With an Edge, Dies at 78By Michael Kimmelmanaug / New York Times / August 16, 2002
- Portraits Shockingly Intimate a Half-century Ago Now Assume a Softer PatinaBy Ken Jonson / New York Times / August 14, 2008
- The Legendary Bars where Famous Artists Drank, Debated and Made Art HistoryBy Alina Cohen / Artsy / May 2, 2018
- This is the Life and Art of Larry Rivers - Or So It SeemsBy Michael Winerip / New York Times / July 24,1983
- When Park Avenue met Pop ArtBy Barbara Goldsmith / Vanity Fair / January, 2003