Los Angeles

Larry Rivers

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

Larry Rivers concocts brilliance. Half-a-dozen unforgettable paintings stud his thirteen-year career. But nothing he has painted equals the guile with which he has painted it. Rivers’ artful dodges signal the triumph of craftiness over craft.

Nervous, shifting, ambitious paintings evoke shades of artists whose drive surmounted severe limitations—Courbet, Manet, Gauguin. Rivers’ early variation on Courbet’s Funeral at Ornans scarcely resembles it but it does indicate the spiritual bond between the two revolutionaries. Today Courbet’s revolt seems simple. He struck a firm about-face posture as a hero of the realistic movement and went on painting in an academic way. Rivers’ situation was more complex. He faced triumphant hordes of Abstract Expressionists armed with the same weapons as Courbet—a taste for greatness and a pop-gun talent for realistic, autobiographical art. History had rendered these armaments a little ridiculous. To posture seriously with weapons common to any good illustrator was out of the question. Failing of invention Rivers had no choice but to dance a frenetic fandango and accept everything he could learn, feel, or approximate. The result has been a garrulous, chimerical art positioned to shift, defect, or, faced by emergency—to grin and say it was only kidding.

In the fifties, when Rivers was a jazz musician becoming artist, soloists screwed around. Musicians often interrupted their playing with spoken asides or interpolated “Mary had a Little Lamb” if they felt an improvisation going flat, falling into a traditional pattern or—importantly—facing insurmountable technical difficulties. Ethically, Rivers’ painting is similar: “Sacrifice everything to holding your audience. In case of a stylistic or technical cul-de-sac . . . make jokes.”

The jokes of Rivers’ art operate from three bases: vanity, debunkment and technical necessity. He is a master of transforming silk purses into sows ears. The justly-famous Dutch Masters, The Greatest Homosexual, and the incredibly flaccid Mlle. Riviere all jeer at artistic tradition while arrogating the charms of the past. Other paintings satirize Abstract Expressionism’s mystical heroics, using its techniques to make “things”—cars, maps and flags. Simultaneously they capitalize on the free slash to avoid sticky drawing problems. Labels on the body parts of a female nude divest the figure of poetry, mystery, and grandeur. This literary ploy is a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand. The French words distract us from the summarily painted figure, supply a dash of middle-class intellectualism, and demonstrate the toughness of Rivers’ art.

How tough is Rivers’ art? The sacred cows it deflates have been punctured so often that their defilement is safe, commonplace social chatter. That brand of iconoclasm requires less toughness than gracious subservience to the metier—unless denial of these values violates one’s own temperament—then one gets tough in sacrificing his feelings to his job.

Rivers’ artistic temperament sets ambition at war with romance and sentiment. His satire has a sharp edge of self-mockery and only functions in the face of “culture.” If there is an imposed necessity to reduce greatness to commonplace there is apology implied in that Rivers’ technical terminology is the same. He pulls down St. Peter’s in the name of progress and rebuilds it with the same stones. The new edifice is distinguishable from the old only in that there is no mortar between the stones. Its walls are plastered with advertisements.

Romanticism is most apparent in works from 1961–63 when Rivers favored the subjects of Delacroix, transforming his exotic locales into maps, camels into cigarette packs, patriots into broken down Civil War veterans and nubians into pickaninnies. Rivers augmented romance by increasing the gap of yearning for great deeds and far places. His romantic awe and sunset colors become poignant. One thinks of Red Buttons in Sayonara, of a baggy-pants comedian reading Kubla Khan. Cynicism, under the circumstances, has to be a put up job.

What isn’t put up is the pure sentimentality of Rivers’ pictures circa 1954–56. This is his least defensive, least tricky period. His mother in law, sons, friends—even the slate menu from a hash house—he finds infinitely touching. He regards the trappings of his personal existence with that tenderness which tough Brooklyn kids reserve for The Block.

Rivers is the last of the autobiographers. His transformation of the concept of the artist-as-hero into one of the hero-as-clown parallels the rise of such autobiographical comedians as Shelly Berman. As his pretensions increase his pratfalls get funnier. His humanity—in isolation from his ideals—more touching. Rivers is an extraordinary entertainer.

William Wilson