PRINT November 1965

Larry Rivers, Stuart Davis and Slang Idiom

LARRY RIVERS MIGHT BE CONSIDERED a public artist, in that his themes directly concern aspects of social and political life in this country. Moreover, they’re not without a tinge of the didactic and polemical: overtones of the Negro revolution, a set for LeRoi Jones’ play, “The Toilet,” poem-pictures, a nostalgia for the American place, intercultural relationships, anatomical charts, the history of the Russian revolution—all these are gobbets of his vision. The will to play a role in the life of his times, to engage it on some liberal plane, seems distinctly one of Rivers’ impulses.

And yet, as is well known, his means are indirect and oblique, full of pictorial subterfuges, and his evasive evocation of worldly events shifts intermittently in and out of focus. In turn, this is contingent upon essentially decorative (color block, or spot relief), self-concerned, hedonistic painterly dynamics which have characterized his work for the last ten years.

Rivers’ position in the history of recent American art is an equivocal one, to say the least. The figurative basis for what he does exists sometimes above, sometimes below what appears to be a constantly self-adjusting mechanism to the going stylistic idiom, whether it be, at one moment, Abstract-Expressionism (de Kooning), its extension in Johns and Rauschenberg, or Pop Art. Rivers even confesses to being a “kangaroo mind,” although I would say a kind of a butterfly, “papillonesque” personality is what comes through most frequently from a view of his pictures. He neglects to assimilate his imagery completely to his alternating styles, for fear of being taken for an old fashioned, representational painter. On the other hand, he is very hesitant to go completely down the path of abstraction, for this, in turn, would subvert the obvious will towards sentiment which is one of his hallmarks. Moreover, he is the perpetuator of a particularly montage-like configuration—not montage in the sense of obvious misalliances, or Dada incongruence playing fast with the picture plane, but a montage of experiences and sensations within the undifferentiated matrix of the canvas itself, now acting as a filter screen of memories. What this has meant is the reduced scale, the shared importance, and the diffused, even schematic blandness of the imagery which he depicts. This is not to say, in any sense, that Rivers is one of the new, “cool,” personalities who populate the galleries these days (nor does he have to be). Rather, the off-beat, jazz-ridden, playful aspect of his approach is something that pre-dates the heavily compressed ironies by which the American situation is prevalently viewed today. (Rivers, that is, does not deal with those reproductive techniques whose current mimicry makes his own response look incurably esthetic.) Mr. Sam Hunter, in his introduction to the catalog of the Rivers retrospective (of his last fifteen years of work),* says that “Rivers is an action painter by origin and impulse, devoted to their (the Abstract Expressionists) ideal of creativity and risk, and a New Realist by adoption, who invites the mass-produced images of popular culture into his work.” And yet, one wonders if Rivers, in fact, does not slip on this dual ambition, granting its authenticity for the moment.

Rather, those aspects of the outer world which his work conveys are physiologically and spiritually thin-bodied, spectral, even if flashily brushed. Rivers is neither an expressionist nor an ironist. There being no viable alternative to either position, perhaps this accounts for the remarkably moot, unconvincing emotional tone that pervades the works at the Jewish Museum. What really turns him on, as the saying goes, is to vie quixotically with the old masters (Gericault, Ingres), and this, consequently, introduces into his work an art historical rumination and longing quite comparable to the distance one feels his canvases stand from the contemporary events they present. Exceptional along these lines is the whole series of “Dutch Masters” (1963), in which, for once, this contradiction is avoided by depicting the Rembrandt reproduction which is the trademark on the lid of one of the cheaper brands of cigars. It represents the meshing of what the English critic David Sylvester called the wine and Coca-cola cultures, now divested of any implausibility by one of the most facile pictorial elisions imaginable, alibied perfectly by the witty choice of imagery. For one instant, Rivers’ art works conceptually AC or DC, even if the impossibility of maintaining the grand manner or the European figurative tradition is acknowledged, and at the same time used as a confessional ploy to ingratiate itself with the spectator. Here, surely, emerges what is psychologically interesting about the vision of Larry Rivers. For, he makes his concealments transparent (for example, his ostentatious pentimenti), and his inadequacies obvious. He shows that he distrusts his own slickness even while indulging in it, and from all this, there issues that slightly sweet-sour honesty which evokes the Rivers flavor.

As a result, what he tells us about the American scene is not so much visually as it is psychically revealing; the response of a sensitive, clever man, confused in his motivations, as he contemplates the disorder that besets us all. Some of that confusion is manifested in a canvas called The Identification Manual (a title beautifully indicative of his problems!), of 1964. It is a triptych which juxtaposes the drawing of a Negro girl, with two painted renditions of her head, one in black, and the other white on black. In addition, Rivers includes black and white silhouettes, drawings of personalities from the civil rights movement, and reverse images of Dixie Peach, a salve that ostensibly lightens skin pigmentation. All in all, this work makes itself out to be an allegory of the racial crisis in our country. The only trouble here is that the Negro girl is remarkably idealized as an image, so that the very stereotypes which Rivers might seem to be inveighing against, become, on the artistic level, parcel of his pictorial execution—with no external commentary bracketing them in.

Some of this same difficulty is shown in his nudes, where the pose is idealized or rhetorical in a grandiose, deliberately self-inflated manner, whereas the actual flesh (most noticeably in the Double Portrait of Berdie, or the portrait of his first wife, Augusta) is shown in all its embarrassing, vulnerable flaccidity. Or, going further, in the portrait of his son Joseph, or that of Frank O’Hara, one finds a particularity of location, an emphasis on the nakedness of the sitter, that contrasts, perhaps disingenuously now, with the canon of forms to which the overall image would ordinarily have referred. Rivers gives the impression of being reluctantly alienated from his material, even when he gives us a slashing glamorous portrayal of a Buick (1959), executed in this instance as if he had been a latter day Boldini. In the Bar Mitzvah photographs, the portrait of his Polish relatives during the 1920s, his reworking of Courbet in the early The Burial (1952), he merely testifies to the gap he, Rivers, feels separates him from the capacity of grappling with the immediate present, in all its unmanageable chaos. Particularly is this noticeable in his rendering of the last Civil War veteran, lying dying or dead, in which the pictorial schematism of the image, the impossibility of filling it in, becomes a needless visual frustration for the beholder, even if it was demanded by the artist’s flippant neo-de Kooning style of 1961. (Not for a moment does one suspect that Rivers is responding elegiacally to the event depicted.)

Perhaps here is an underlying explanation for his practice of naming the images in his canvases in a diagrammatic, schoolmasterish way, almost as if in a belated attempt to convince himself that the parts of the body or the artifacts to which he is referring, do, in fact, have distinguishable identities. We are not to be misled, in any event, by his recent collages and stencils or combine paintings, where he intrudes arch ambiguities, such as reverse and transparent images, juggling different techniques as they deliver the same motif (The Second Greatest Homosexual, II, 1965). The intention here is to arrive at innumerable double-entendres and puns, but, it works out to a kind of esthetic card shuffling, or sleight of hand. Just as one feels the superfluity of such devices within Rivers’ imagery, so too, one notes the lack of some central inevitability within his iconography, in an inability to energize and make potent, on almost a mythical level, the particular investment in social reality with which he seems to be involved. How similar it is to a displaced German Nazarene, gazing hopelessly back upon the Middle Ages.

Yet, these inhibitions are interesting, not because they are the drawbacks of a gauchely naive humanist, but rather, quite the contrary, because they are the inevitable failings of a man almost hypersensitive to his historical position. Mr. Hunter’s efforts, in the catalog, to view Rivers’ art as a “deliberate deflation of the pictorial means as the exclusive carrier of content in painting” simply won’t wash on the evidence of pictures whose only claim to content is on the basis of the paint itself. On the other hand, when one examines what the artist, from time to time, has to tell us about his work, one is put similarly on guard. Referring to his Washington Crossing the Delaware canvases of 1953, Rivers postulates the idea of accepting “the impossible and the corny as a challenge, instead of running away.” But to accept this is to overlook the conception of that challenge, as a social stunt, while ignoring, too, its destructiveness as an ambition of serious art. (Once again, to rehabilitate the academic comes dangerously, and perhaps unwittingly close to self-revelation; that is, to the revelation of an artist who confines himself to the function of a more or less ambiguous parodist.) Self-consciousness, in his case, takes the form of a flashy diffidence, which rushes ever more desperately, as time goes on, to camouflage the vacancy which is its primary intuition of life. The contemporary American situation has become the patsy for this dilemma, just as Rivers’ own art has fallen prey to its chronically missed prerogatives.

Despite its celebration of the crass rhythms of American commercial culture, and despite its hard, flat, no-nonsense look, Stuart Davis’ art, now on display in a Whitney Museum retrospective,** must not be construed as a direct precursor of Pop Art. For this would imply that it is, in some sense, an ancestor of the essential coldness, and conceptual intricacy with which we’ve become familiar recently in the work of younger artists. Such, most emphatically, is not the case. Rather, Stuart Davis, a first generation American modernist, is incorrigibly bouncy and boyish in tone, with a kind of incurable optimism and good faith which colors his imagery, even as it dates it. For all that he was interested in sign painting and emblems, they conveyed to him nothing essentially more than that “good news,” for which they were originally manufactured by their industrial authors. Indeed, his reveling in the jazzy, urban environment, so unprecedented in an earlier America suffering under an esthetic inferiority complex, is not comparable to the reexamination of that same environment today. Davis did not see in it that monstrous, intimidating quality, which afflicts us at every step, but which might nevertheless be subverted, in the interest of constructing extraordinarily larger-than-life sensations on the canvas. On the contrary, for him it is one more exciting sign of progress, jumping with a hot tempo which had gotten under his skin. Nothing could be more foreign to his outlook than the camp attitude of deriving a stylish pleasure from the flamboyantly vulgar. Still, no one would be willing to deny the relevance of his openness to Pop culture, or the singularly mechanistic handling he developed in order to record it.

Given the combination of his background and insistent temperament, great things might have been expected of him. And, as it happened, they materialized early. Beginning under the Philadelphia Eight, influenced immediately afterwards by the Armory Show, Davis, by the end of the First World War, was experimenting with Cubism in very fruitful, if eclectic ways. In this, of course, he was at one with a number of confreres in New York who derived their major inspiration from Synthetic Cubism, and, to a lesser extent, Futurism. But he was quite individual in the uses to which he put the syntax that had been discovered. For one thing, he was prepared to go much further in the outright incorporation of popular artifacts into his work than, say, Schamberg or Leon Kelly. In his Bull Durham, Lucky Strike, and Cigarette Paper, Davis actually scaffolds the commercial packaging or trademarking by a structure reminiscent of the Cubist grid on the implied flat surface. Even further, he goes so far as to imitate various textures, like tobacco threads, or flakes, cheap printing, and fake wood papers, by a method which suggests, not his immediate derivations, but the old American trompe l’oeil painters, Peto and Haberle. Naturally, Cubist collage played with these effects too, but Davis, characteristically, and patiently, elaborates the represented appearance rather than incorporating counterfeits or actual objects. (How removed in spirit is this American from Schwitters’ “merzbilder” of the times.) Yet it was a very bold stroke, because it took advantage of contemporary stylistic possibilities, catalyzing them in a way so prophetic of the displacements which strike us as insightful now. When one compares Davis with that other prescient artist of the twenties, Gerald Murphy, who used similar techniques, he appears by contrast much more earthy, crude, and direct, so that one almost begins to feel that these works were the result of natural impulses on the part of Davis, rather than of a concerted ironic drive. In 1924, in Seventy Five Watt, and Roses in Glass Bowl, he was able to paint images of such an overtly illustrational, coarsely chiaroscuro manner, with grammar school outlines, that they jump a full forty years ahead to remind us of the work of Roy Lichtenstein. These have nothing whatsoever to do with Cubism, beyond a few decorative touches and stipples, and they serve as glimpses of an underlying folkloric mentality which was subsumed by the sophisticated European orchestration that Davis wanted to make a more apposite vehicle for his gathering consciousness of the scene around him.

It is fascinating to see these alternatives of “high” and “low” pictorial culture, as they oscillate towards some consummation of a new vocabulary. Unlike Ralston Crawford, or Charles Sheeler, Davis seems to have been haunted by a more large-scaled, monumental, plastic construction than was vouchsafed the American art world at the time. And it is a sign of his tense ambition that the works of the twenties constantly tried to define themselves along these lines. In Supper Table of 1925, there is an echo of late Juan Gris, in which the already metallic conventions of that artist are eccentrically exaggerated in a wandering biomorphic manner. Two years later, in his “Eggbeater” series, Davis assigns himself the task of trimming down the whole configuration with which he had been playing around indecisively earlier, to one specific still-life problem, arriving at ever greater syntheses of a flat shape consciousness and concise formal statement. When he actually goes to Paris, in the next year, all that he occupies himself with, in a most paradoxical turnabout, is pastose stage set paintings of Paris tourist spots, done up in a Dufy-esque style that remind one only of the UPA cartoons and steamship ads that they must have influenced shortly thereafter.

Thus far, one has the spectacle of an artist of undoubted inventiveness and resourcefulness, who, even with a maximum effort, has not yet found his voice. In the 1930s, there is some resolution of these conflicting forces, but not, possibly, in the most satisfactory way. Stuart Davis elaborates a kind of proliferating, big city tableau consisting of blocks of flat, for the most part, secondary colors, upon which are drawn stage flats of shops, buildings, bridges, street vistas, with typography serving as a form of sprinkled accent and texture. He provides a sometimes charming picture of metropolitan growth and picturesqueness, fully reminiscent of film sets for Fred Astaire musicals, and very much belied as a picture of Depression wrought America, in the work of even such parochial artists as Benton, Hopper, or Burchfield. He devises a jazzy, muralesque, abbreviated version of the passing American scene, which strikes one only as representative of the best “moderne” public decoration of the thirties. In his mural for the men’s lounge at the Radio City Music Hall of New York, a picture entitled Men Without Women (how suggestive that theme would have been to the mind of a Surrealist!), Davis constructs a disarmingly awkward montage of barber poles, playing cards, pipes, sailboats, and sporty automobiles. Gone are the. problematical aspects of his work of the twenties, to be replaced now by a cheerful endorsement of wholesome life, embodied, to all events and purposes, by a new genre, the WPA type mural. Not for nothing was Gorky, a close friend, to produce work of a similar persuasion, in his “Aviation” murals for the Newark airport. In any event, the later murals of Davis are more successful exactly to the extent that they were more elliptical in their treatment of the motif. Not to be overlooked, finally, was the overarching presence of Miró, which confirmed a greater density and confidence in Davis’ operations as time went on.

The forties witness a racier expansion of the artist’s idiom, as he gains effective command of his imagery. To this period belongs Ultra Marine, Ursine Park, and the Mellow Pad. Forms now notch and sprocket each other, in shuttled, shallow planes or jump nervously by means of shock contrasts executed in saturated primary colors. The whole accent is on a calculated optical thrust, in which activation of the faceted area of the picture is seen as an interrelated pattern of positive-negative, silhouetted, reciprocally ratifying foils. Even though the pace, movement, and energy of what meets the eye has been accentuated, Davis keeps a Picassoid brittleness to the crinkled rhythms of his urban tracery. One result is that you view the forms in terms of constantly shifting speeds, which enhances the electric, colloquial glitter of the Davis cosmos. These canvases are more free-swinging, relaxed, but perfectly contemporary colleagues of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” series. (Together, they are the best examples of pre-Abstract-Expressionist art in the forties.) Their major drawbacks are only that their staccato calligraphy can seem a bit too studied, and their somewhat over-cluttered compositions can appear too emphatically “design-y.”

His art was now ready for the last, and most fulfilling moment of his career. In the fifties, his pictorial mechanics are so assured that he can relinquish a great deal of the overlapping buttressing and linear complication that patterned his work up to now. In fact, the last period is like an anagram of everything that had preceded it, in its broadness and monumentality (even though there is still insinuated a typical wriggle of bemused urban observation). But now, in Memo, Rapt at Rappaport’s (there are more than a few wisecrack titles in Davis), and Composition Concrete, he produces the most handsome of his visions. In his final utterances, Davis was in the process, but fell just short of, transforming his perennial enthusiasm into that larger innocence, and greater joy, that distinguished the highpoint of the decade—Matisse’s cutouts.

FOR ALL THEIR DIFFERENCES—stylistic, conceptual—the art of Davis and Rivers presents us with some common issues which might be provisionally touched on, in summing up. It seems to me that these artists are the foremost representatives of what might be called slang idioms, which are easily extrapolated from the larger contexts in which their work appears. The jaunty, rakish, mock-naive lingo of Davis is a very conscious empiricism that eventually became a natural coloring. His relation to his material is very much that of a fan, a buff. Rivers, for his part, enacts the role of the soft-shoe pro, affecting a tone of mild, side of the mouth cynicism. Davis uses outright pictorial argot; Rivers, by contrast, appears to be colloquial in a genteel way. And yet it is impossible to escape the impression that slang is a form of evasion for both of them—a device by which to glide past the major artistic challenges of their era. How safe it was for Davis to be so indigenous, especially when the great metaphors of twentieth century art were being worked out heuristically, and yet menacingly in Paris. And how circuitous is Rivers in not facing up to the tremendous pressure exerted by the Abstract Expressionists. Slanginess gave them at once a pretext and a personality with which to hedge in their considerable talents. In terms of their attitude towards time, this is particularly revealing. Davis’ evocation of the American scene on the level of a timeless arcadia, a pays enchante (that mingles, like Leger, a pastoral with an urban tradition), is yet not generalized enough to uphold the energy that went into it. Rivers, on the contrary, is terribly uncomfortable in the present, and bolts for the past at the slightest opportunity, which only makes his central engagement, a mnemonic pastiche of contemporary life, all the more suspect. An innocuous, but necessary slanginess covers up what in the end, is a touching failure of nerve.

Max Kozloff



* At the Detroit Institute of Arts, November 17–December 26, 1965; and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, January 20–February 20, 1996.

** Organized by the National Collection of Fine Arts, and to be seen at the University of California, Los Angeles, October 31–November 28, 1965.