PRINT October 1977

The ‘Terrible’ Larry Rivers

When this you see remember me.
–Gertrude Stein

“I WILL NOT,” ANNOUNCED CLEM GREENBERG several years ago, “be seated opposite that Rivers throughout dinner.” The Rivers picture in question was The Ace of Spades; the host, and owner of the painting, was William Rubin. Greenberg’s declaration summed up nicely his distaste for a painter whom he had once praised lavishly in an article written for The Nation in 1949 and whose later work he dismissed as “terrible.” Indeed, given Greenberg’s often rigorous taste, the art of Larry Rivers could not meet the required standards of malerische-ness, or the taste for avant-garde work which achieved a consensus among sophisticated collectors and critics of the late 1950s and 1960s. (It is said that Rubin was so taken aback by Greenberg’s rejection that soon after the dinner the offending canvas was “de-acquisitioned.”)

The truth is that Rivers is often offensive and he has painted some “terrible” pictures; one monumentally appalling example is the vast three-dimensional Russian Revolution in the Hirshhorn collection. But, oddly, it was not a conventional need to shock which could be said to motivate an offending painting (since there is no one left to shock). Rivers’ worldliness and wily intelligence are only too evident throughout his career; the kind of work that has been called “terrible” has been found offensive for being neither sufficiently “painterly” nor “linear.” Rivers has played with both methods of expression, in a way that offended serious high-brow “taste.”

The roots of this long-felt antagonism among a certain section of the art public are various and often unfounded. “Natural Talent,” as Stephen Spender once pointed out, does arouse antipathy; it is unfair that certain people are simply born that way. While still very young—possibly 18 or 19—and with no training whatsoever, Rivers showed some drawings to a fellow jazz musician, the painter Nell Blaine (drummer in an all-girl jazz band). Blaine was astonished by their quality and convinced Rivers to study with Hans Hofmann, who was equally prescient about Rivers’ “Natural Talent.” When Rivers showed Hofmann an abstract painting, his teacher quite correctly suggested that abstraction was not, and never would be, his way to work, and that he should do “his own thing.” Luckily, Rivers discovered Bonnard, a discovery which gave him a way to begin.

The 1949 exhibition reviewed by Clement Greenberg at a small cooperative gallery in Greenwich Village (the Jane Street Gallery) mainly contained a suite of pictures showing how Rivers felt about Bonnard. A year later, a 1950 group show presented by Sam Kootz and selected by both Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro included one of these Bonnard-like canvases—an ambitious, large-scale reclining nude. This Kootz show created a good impression, since it included most of the painters of the so-called “Second Generation.”

By the end of that year Rivers had adopted another guardian angel: Soutine. Unlike the light, feathery palette of the former manner, the canvases were now covered with thick, dark pigments—dour greens, browns, and blues. Still lifes of plants or figures were done in heavy impasto; the whole effect, in fact, was one of heaviness, perhaps because of insufficient linear tensions. The irony of this predicament is that drawing has remained Rivers’ basic strength.

There were, however, three important large canvases in which the figures were more defined. Rivers had come under the influence of Courbet and ad-mired in particular The Burial at Ornans. As it happened, one of his relatives had died and an orthodox Jewish funeral was arranged; Rivers made rough sketches of the final ceremony. The grouping of figures followed Courbet’s design, but the cast of characters had different hats and other accoutrements to indicate that this was not a Christian, but a Judaic, burial. Soon after that, Rivers attempted an Agony in the Garden—the familiar theme of Christ meditating on his fate with the disciples asleep on the ground. Again the atmosphere was Old Testament rather than New, and although color was pitched to a slightly higher level, the overall effect was still dour. A third canvas of that time, a life-sized nude of Richard Astor (then a dancer) sustained thick swaths of pigment (again browns and grays and dark ochres), but the figure itself took on contour because of its linear element.

Iconologically, it became apparent that Rivers was obsessed by death, hoping through art to “deny death” (Ernest Becker). He was also obsessed by money and excrement, themes which appear much later in his work. Similarly, a theme of disgust with sexuality—a disgust related to one’s own mortality—became increasingly evident and eventually occupied a place equal to that of death and money.

In the period from 1953 to 1962, the linear and painterly came closer and remained in finest balance. During these 10 or so years perhaps most of Rivers’ best work was achieved. Issuing from Rivers’ instinctive feeling for scale, canvases of every size proliferated. The lighter and breezier colors of the Bonnard phase returned. Almost all these canvases were preceded by studies and sketches which then became other paintings.

It is to be remembered that although Rivers was friendly with many of the painters who were active during the 1950s, his closest friends were literary. The milieu of The Club and The Cedar Bar, later the Five Spot, was peopled by almost as many writers and intellectuals as painters and sculptors. It was perfectly natural for Rivers to draw and paint his friends—just as we find in the poetry of Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Schuyler and others descriptions of, and dedications to, their friends. Rivers himself also liked to write and invented his own variety of prose and verse. Literature was also an important inspiration. It was a first reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that led Rivers to the daring idea of creating an historical canvas. Tolstoy’s account of the retreat from Moscow became George Washington Crossing the Delaware, which was exposed at the height of the fashion for Abstract Expressionism and caused considerable controversy (that it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art seemed further to inflame opinion).

Rivers had abandoned thick impasto for a thinned-out metier which allowed for translucency and airier space. In the wide variety of subjects painted in the years immediately following the Washington painting the space breathes, the forms hold to their allotted places, and the “subjects” read with complete clarity. Even in so ambiguous and humorous a picture as It’s Raining Anita Huffington we can follow the pictorial logic with delight. The series of paintings of Rivers’ mother-in-law, Berdie Berger, are among those successfully accomplished in this vein, where the linear and painterly elements were in almost perfect accord.

In the five years between 1954 and 1959 Rivers may well have painted those canvases on which his ultimate reputation will rest: Berdie in the Red Shawl, Berdie in the Garden, the superb over-life-sized nude of Augusta Rivers, and the affecting nude Double Portrait of Berdie, now a wistful and vulnerable old woman with not many years to live. These remain as interesting today as ever. The large-scale The Studio (6' 10“ x 16' 1”), The Athlete’s Dream (6' 10“ x 9' 10”), Europe II (54“ x 48”), and the glowing Blue: The Byzantine Empress seem to me to be evidence of a major and serious talent painting at a high level. The Next to Last Confederate Soldier, The Last Civil War Veteran, The Dying and Dead Veteran announced the end of Rivers’ painterly phase. His obsession with death and his disgust with poverty and sexuality would become the fundamental mnemonic devices of his next 15 years. And while the linear side would be sustained, the painterly side almost disappeared. For reasons too complex even for his critics, Rivers acclimated himself to the expectations of a new and vastly increased art audience whose taste was essentially middle- or low-brow.

The pleasures of Rivers’ January 1977 retrospective at the Marlborough Gallery were many, if one had had the good fortune to follow the ins and outs of two and a half decades of the artist’s work. Leo Rubinfein, however (Artforum, April 1977), sees the artist as “a sort of society portraitist for artists and writers,” a painter who has “undertaken all the devices of modern painting . . . particularly Matisse, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, and Hockney . . . and reduced them into an altogether tame, too palpable melange.” Once again, the “terrible” Larry Rivers who has made a “classic comic book of modernism” is “interesting but empty.” Who, by the way, among those who studied with Hofmann, wasn’t influenced by Matisse? Actually, it might have been shrewd of Rubenfien to explain in what ways Rivers influenced Hockney (who of course started after Rivers), Rauschenberg, Kitaj, and many other painters in the 1960s. For instance, The Accident (1958), where Rivers’ forms are strewn over the surface randomly, probably influenced Rauschenberg. As Rivers’ former dealer I sat through many exhibitions noting who was there.

Who were the people that flocked in? The then small but ardent “art world.” Tchelitchew, for instance, who said, “This Rivers very strong temperament. Push that one if you want make succès of gallery.” There was Duchamp, amused by Rivers’ impudence. And Pollock and Lee Krasner, who thought he was “terrible.” Andy Warhol came; he bought his first Rivers drawing in 1954. No one was quite so enthusiastic as Henry Geldzahler, then a student and friend of Joseph Rivers, Larry’s son. Of course Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, Barney Newman, Mark Rothko, and others saw Rivers’ paintings. David Hockney was too young to have seen the work; if he was bemused by anyone’s work then, it would have been the strange, stiff drawings of Lucien Freud in England (later Hockney was to be Henry Geldzahler’s invenzione).

It does not ultimately matter, obviously, who influences whom in any given period of art activity. The question of who did what first is only of amateur interest. But if this hapless question is going to be asked, then it would seem that Rivers often did get there first. Besides, a painter who has attained quick fame and success is sure to be emulated by others. When Dorothy Miller presented Rivers’ work in one of her most popular new talent exhibitions (it took courage in the early 1950s to present totally new and unknown artists), it is not surprising that he should have become a controversial figure. (I cannot forget how much Donald Judd detested Rivers and how sincerely he said so in print.) Nor was it surprising that every exhibition offered played to “standing room only.”

But the real reason why it is important to put this influence business to rest is that authenticity is such an important part of Rivers’ artistic personality. If ever there was a “Beat” it was Rivers—the distance, the skepticism, the refusal to be in one place, the denial of all middle-class values, even the (Surrealistic) process of suspending consciousness to dredge up one’s own resources. Similarly, it was “Bop,” not mass culture, that Rivers loved, just as Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac sat evenings long in the jazz spots of New York listening to Charlie Parker. Two of Rivers’ finest canvases are portraits of the saxaphonist, and of the drummer Elvin Jones.

Clearly, Rivers was neither a hanger-on nor a peripheral figure in the scene he inhabited. Rivers was both an intellectual and “street smart”; the contradictions of such a stance will not hold together all of the time. So, it was possible for him to paint both “terrible” pictures and very good ones. Rubinfein puts his finger on this difficulty by saying, “The pictures thus evidence Rivers’ own divided loyalty between the violent and calm, but they do so without making that contradiction their content. They merely manifest it.” But in my opinion, it is this very “contradiction” which is “their content.”

Many of the drawings in Rivers’ retrospective were from the 1950s. Throughout this period Rivers was à rebours, as much against the current as, say, the “naturalist” Fairfield Porter. Take Rivers’ recurrent motif of a “blank eye.” The glance as a directional force had been made a matter of concern by Meyer Schapiro as well as by earlier painters who recognized the kinds of charge which can be set loose in a picture by even so subtle a device. In a period when the esthetic demand was for the “allover” (every part of a canvas being equally important), it was Rivers’ claim that that was a “total impossibility; look at the eyes in almost any Rembrandt.”

But if Rivers was in any way out-of-step with his “blank eye” device, the question of his “Beat” idiosyncratic integrity—of marching to the sound of a different drummer—did pertain to the Abstract Expressionists more generally. “I will believe it,” said de Kooning in a descending elevator after having examined an exhibition of Barney Newman’s work, “if he keeps it up.” Anyway, have not all of us the right to question the sincerity of any given artist?—a question that Rivers himself ironically put into the Marlborough show with a large and magnificent portrait drawing of Barney Newman, based on a photograph by Paul Katz (Rivers changed the particular Station of the Cross in the background).

Rivers, who himself has made every mistake, taken all the wrong chances, even painted dreadful pictures, presents Newman as a charlatan, a blow-hard, a latter day Major Hoople. The red line which outlines one side of the figure instantly recalls the massive claims made by a painter who has gone beyond God, the nonbeliever who painted the Stations of the Cross. Rivers quite sincerely queries: “Is this man a fake or a prophet?” (John Russell’s recoil from this picture would indicate that Rivers had done it again. Terrible.)

When Larry Rivers was called into the district attorney’s office to explain how he had won the “Sixty-four Thousand Dollar Question,” the television program chaired by one Charles Van Doren, Louis Lefkowitz began to bellow at Rivers, hoping to frighten him into admitting he had been bribed and that the program was rigged. On and on the D.A. shouted. Rivers, who had quite easily won his prize (the questions were idiotic), finally said: “Mr. Lefkowitz, what movie do you think you are in?” Rivers might very well ask the same question of many artists of the New York School. He will quite cheerfully admit he is just as “show biz” as all the others. Whatever criticism one might make of him, he pretends to very little. He puts his mouth where the money is, but quite curiously he remains in the truest sense a “Beat.”

Larry Rivers also appears in another guise in his retrospective, that of Yitzroch Loiz a Grossberg (the name he was born with, which was later changed to Irving, finally to become Larry Rivers the Saxaphonist). His “Jewishness” appears in a series of 10 very quiet and lovely maquettes done for a synagogue designed by Percival Goodman. Here the Ten Commandments are sketched in Hebrew calligraphy, to be turned into bas reliefs to decorate the building. Rivers was doing direct metal sculpture at the time and had hoped that the trustees of the synagogue would understand that his drawings could only be an approximation of the final work he wished to create. The trustees wanted exact “mechanical drawings” and in the end turned the commission down. Rivers was bitterly disappointed, and it must have taken courage to expose these rejections to public view.

Let us return to the question of death and disgust. The crisis picture for Rivers was apparently The Accident (1958), which is still of interest, since its quality as a painting is still held in balance. The randomness of its composition, the feeling of scatter and disjunction, is somehow held together in the picture plane; the theme of disaster manages to be fully expressed. A few years later a real disaster occurred, the death of his closest friend and, in a sense, Rivers’ conscience: Frank O’Hara. The death of Berdie Berger also left its mark, since she was closer to Rivers than his own parents. Somewhere between 1961 and 1963, however, Rivers became increasingly concerned with people (as well as objects) as objects. Bodies are dismembered or bloodied, and sexuality is invariably imbued with sado-masochistic overtones. The more banal the object (Camel cigarettes, Dutch Masters cigars, playing cards, toilets, graveyards, automobiles, etc.) the better. The Russian Revolution (1965) becomes a panorama for a Coney Island side show. Of course revulsion is a perfectly useful attitude for an artist; Céline and Hogarth, Swift and Ensor come quickly to mind. Even so, cruelty is perhaps the ultimate form of sentimentality, and it is not difficult to understand why many people were offended by Rivers’ obsessions during these 15 years.

But were not mnemonic devices in general usage throughout the 1960s? Warhol’s cow or soup can, Wesselman’s nudes, Oldenburg’s expanded lipsticks or soft toilets, to mention a few such signs, perfectly illustrate Gertrude Stein’s “When this you see remember me.” What, really, is the difference between Rivers’ objectifications and advertising a product? The art itself becomes the product, advertising itself through easily memorized images. It is the closeness of the mnemonic device with the finished product that bores us. Sensibility was somewhere lost in the headlong dash for attention. How easily these jerry-built Pop products will gather dust in the back rooms of warehouses—plastic tattered, neon tubes broken, fiberglass irreparably scratched, Day-glo no longer glowing.

I suspect that Larry Rivers’ response to such a pessimistic view would be: “I am a barometer of the period in which I live.” Perhaps he and all of the other artists who have captured the fancy of the hugely expanded Pop public are right. There is a sense, however, in which Rivers was honest in spite of himself in that period. To have expressed disgust, even contempt, for what he himself was doing comes close to Céline’s dark, particular outrage. The scatology, the loathing which leads to pornography, the indifference toward métier and even toward his own personal style, all add up to an involuntary truthfulness.

Let me repeat that the startling event of the Marlborough retrospective was the large portrait drawing of Barney Newman. It seemed like the return concert of a Horowitz: nothing of the bravura or the wit or the innate elegance of a master craftsman had here been lost. Indeed, to paraphrase Stephen Spender again: Is anything quite so unfair as “Natural Talent?”

John Bernard Myers