New York

Larry Rivers

Marlborough | Midtown

Larry Rivers’ drawings, especially when seen in a huge number as in his current retrospective, are at once interesting and empty. They are not quite seductive and emotional; neither are they hard-headed and calculating. It is as if Rivers has undertaken all the characteristic devices of modern painting (particularly those of Matisse, de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Hockney) and reduced them into an altogether tame, too palatable melange. It becomes a layman’s version of the 20th century, sort of a Classic Comic book of modernism.

One of the most frequent Rivers devices is the blank eye; Rivers will sketch one of his sitter’s eyes in clearly and leave, in place of the other, blank paper. This peculiarity is so regular as to be a signatory mark—a perfectly safe one, since it claims a respectable lineage back through Gorky to Picasso to the unfinished Cézannes. Besides being the painter’s mark, it makes Rivers’ subjects appear public and reclusive at the same time, and to make portraiture itself appear a casual project. The blank eye suggests a kind of friendly respect for the subject’s privacy on the artist’s part, and thus implies a special, intimate relation between the two which shuts the audience out. Rivers is a sort of society portraitist for artists and writers.

Rivers has been using modern art’s devices for the wrong effect; he hasn’t lived up to them and the result is a sort of quiet travesty of their real masters. Nothing would be wrong with a calm, serious, sedate portrait style, but Rivers’ drawings make it obvious that that is not what he wants. It is as if he feels that he ought to make his pictures more melancholy, mysterious and dangerous, in a word, deeper, but he refuses to follow this impulse to its source. The pictures thus evidence Rivers’ own divided loyalty between the violent and the calm, but they do so without making that contradiction their content. They merely manifest it. Because they gloss over elements of each side in apparently smooth and seamless craft, they are content to serve as mediators between art and us, to conceal rather than state dissonance.

Leo Rubinfien