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PRINT November 2002

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Larry Rivers

ONE OF THE REASONS I came to New York before I was old enough to go anywhere was to meet artists like Larry Rivers. Larry was already famous—or infamous—for indulging in activities that white-bread America in the ’50s believed was a one-way ticket to hell. Everything about him was offbeat and funky. He was vain enough to lie about his age. He was either seventy-six or seventy-eight when he died this summer of liver cancer in Southampton, Long Island, where he hobnobbed with the rich and famous while still living more or less the life of a hobo. But this was typical of Larry’s endless contradictions, both as a person and as an artist.

Larry was a Jewish mother’s nightmare. I think it was my college classmate and his teenage girlfriend, the gorgeous Maxine Groffsky, who introduced me to the hostile, affectionate, generous, stingy, gregarious, insecure, serious, superficial, all-American mutt who managed to offend most deeply those he loved the most. I first saw his paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1957 as a teenage hostess for a Barnard fundraiser. The gallery was run by legendary dealer-entrepreneur John Bernard Myers, who was obsessed with Larry and regaled me with endless stories of his antics as well as his bad faith. By the time Johnny began burning my ear with the fecklessness of his prodigious discovery, I had already met the Bad Boy of the New York School. Johnny could not get over the fact that Larry did not respond to his tender sentiments, and when Larry left him for the Marlborough Gallery he was truly destroyed by what he considered an act of high treason. And the fact was, Johnny had a right to cry the blues, since he had not only believed in Larry but created his career and legend.

Over the next four decades, I got to know and respect the bar mitzvah boy born Yitzrock Loiza Grossberg in a Jewish ghetto in the Bronx (he changed his name to Larry Rivers, probably inspired by Muddy Waters, to pursue a career as a jazz saxophonist). When I decided Larry had yet to receive the recognition he deserved as one of the best artists in the history of American art, I saw the need to organize his retrospective. His major defenders in the art world, Myers and Art News editor Thomas Hess, were gone, but so was Clement Greenberg, his worst enemy. I offered the show to every major museum, on both coasts, and was turned down by all of them. The word on the street was that Larry was great until 1960 but it had been all downhill from there. I didn’t agree. Finally, David Levy, a friend of Larry’s and the director of the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, DC, arranged for his last hurrah, a full-scale retrospective that opened in May, just before Larry heard the news that he had only a few months to live.

I worked on the project in a desultory fashion for a few years because Larry never made life easy for anybody, including himself. Whenever I went to his huge loft studio on Thirteenth Street, filled with paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, books, manuscripts, girls, kids, archives (if you could call the disarray of slides and papers that), musical instruments, junk furniture, and so on, the visit always began the same way:

Larry would open the door in his undershirt, sweating because he had just finished working out, and say, “Wanna fuck?” When I demurred, he would immediately make the second ritual offer: “Wanna eat?” This meant going to the local Polish cafeteria where he took his friends, clients, critics, and anybody else who happened to be hungry. The Ritz it wasn’t, but if you could survive lunch, then you had passed the test and could look at pictures. Other heavy dues included having to listen to Larry play sax with his group at a local restaurant once a week. From time to time he would lament that jazz was his real talent and that painting was only his violon d’Ingres. How wrong he was.

Larry Rivers, O’Hara Nude with Boots, 1954, oil on canvas, 97 x 53".

So now that Larry and his entertaining storytelling and charismatic personality are gone, who was he anyway? Heralded as the progenitor of Pop art, which he certainly was, in my view he was also the last great history painter. In his famous send-up of Washington Crossing the Delaware, he interpreted Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 canvas in a loose painterly style that contradicted the slick surfaces of the original with a technique combining charcoal drawing and thin watercolor-like washes wiped on the canvas with rags. The result was an intentionally unfinished look recalling Cézanne’s late watercolors. Later, he would paint immense constructions relating broad historical narratives: the story of slavery and the African American experience, the history of the Russian Revolution, and the saga of the Jews. These were cinematic in scale and ambition, filled with irreverent parody and hyperbole as well as an appreciation of historical experience. The only subject Larry could not bring himself to satirize was the Holocaust, which inspired some of his most moving later works.

Like Cézanne, Larry was full of doubts, but unlike the Impressionist painter, who was convinced of his place in history, he coped with crisis by consistently mocking himself as well as everything around him. A self-confessed neurotic, he was an authentic product of the melting-pot culture that transforms the children of immigrants into ambitious pioneers torn between the old-world values of their ancestors and the culture they share with their new-world contemporaries. For Larry the tension was between the highbrow, European, literary, and Marxist past of Eastern European Jewish intellectuals and American popular culture, which focused on fame, fashion, entertainment, and money, all of which became major themes of his energetic art.

Larry belonged to the generation of World War II veterans who studied art on the GI Bill. Because he received a medical discharge from the US Army, he did not have a full pension, but he managed to scrape enough together to go to Paris after the war. There he fell in love with French painting, but, to the disdain of his contemporaries in awe of Picasso, French painting of the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth. “I wanted to say, ‘What’s Cubism?’” he mused in his autobiography, What Did I Do? “But suddenly I knew what Cubism was. Cubism told a young man from the Bronx he didn’t know very much. Cubism didn’t know about him or his nights walking all over Greenwich Village with his big horn slung over his shoulder. . . . Cubism certainly didn’t smoke pot or get high, Cubism was history in which he played no part. Where could I catch up?”

The answer was, he could not or would not. He knew what was expected of him but rebelled against it. He refused to choose between abstraction and figuration. The New York art world never forgave him for apparently turning his back on modernism to continue to worship the old gods David, Ingres, Géricault, Courbet, and Manet. His ambition was larger than life, but he took Baudelaire’s advice and used contemporary life as his subject matter. He addressed his themes, however, with the camp sensibility typical of underground gay culture.

Unlike Duchampian mockery, camp has an affectionate regard for what it satirizes. In this context, popular culture, with its kitsch and clichés, is as worthy of attention as the old masters of art and literature. Contradictions did not bother Larry, the father of five children, who appear frequently in his paintings. His best friend and sometime lover was the poet Frank O’Hara, whom he painted as a heroic larger-than-life-size nude, an image as scandalous as the artist’s open bisexuality. Larry met O’Hara in 1950 at a cocktail party. “After all it’s life we’re interested in, not art,” he claimed. Later, when O’Hara visited his studio, he said, “After all, it’s art we’re interested in, not life.”

Larry tackled every taboo with gusto, letting it all hang out at a time when everyone, most notoriously FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, was keeping their sexuality carefully buttoned down and in the closet. Official American culture in the ’50s represented the last gasp of WASP Puritanism. Rivers was determined to unmask all its hypocrisy, taking delight in the forbidden subterranean worlds of homosexuality and African American jazz culture. If Apollinaire was the poet among painters, then Rivers was the painter among Ivy League poets like John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg, who were two of his closest friends. He never forgot his roots, however. “If I have inherited bad taste,” he once said, “it is at least compounded with an obnoxious sense of who I am.”

Only the Yiddish word chutzpah can describe the kind of courage Rivers had to take on his most ambitious projects. Drawing female nudes in Hans Hofmann’s class in 1947 put him in a quandary. They always turned into geometric constructions, which he felt was dehumanizing. He wanted figures that were flesh and blood, not triangles and squares. For a moment he was tempted to abstract the figure, but not for long. A Bonnard retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948 pointed a way forward to paint figuratively that was not retrograde.

In 1953, Larry painted the work that both made and destroyed his reputation as a wunderkind. Washington Crossing the Delaware was simultaneously travesty and homage to the grand manner. The public, Larry observed, was not as upset as his fellow painters. At the Cedar Bar, the painting was ridiculed as “Pascin Crossing the Delaware.” Larry told O’Hara the work “was just a way for me to stick my thumb out at other people.” This outlandish parody of a patriotic theme became the inspiration for Lichtenstein, Johns, Warhol, and a generation of American artists questioning the highbrow pretensions of official culture as well as the value of heroic patriotism.

During the height of McCarthyism, making fun of heroism was downright un-American. Yet Larry’s subversive mocking undercurrent became one of the staples of American pop. In addition to his history series, he transformed familiar subject matter: the Camel cigarette dromedary and logo done as Arabian landscapes, Dutch Masters cigar boxes with their Rembrandts on the lid, the Cedar Bar menu, and French one-hundred-franc notes. Still, these were executed with a spontaneous painterliness in a mixed style that never abandoned drawing as its underpinning. Larry’s refusal to give up linear depiction was at least as galling to the action painters of the New York School as his admiration for narrative subject matter and his stubborn insistence on the epic ambitions of classical history painting. An outrageous and perverse rebel against convention, Larry Rivers was at the same time respectful of tradition in art and life, a disciple of the masters, a loving father, and a loyal friend whose contribution to art history has yet to be fully assimilated.

Larry Rivers, Dutch Masters and Cigars II, 1963, oil and collage on canvas, 96 x 67 1/2".

Barbara Rose is a critic who divides her time between Washington, DC, and Corciano (Umbria), Italy.