New York

Larry Rivers

Marlborough | Midtown

Larry Rivers has let loose one of the most exciting bodies of figurative art of this decade. A powerful lot to consider, the new relief paintings he started about three years ago are inspired by a deep reservoir of feeling. Few artists approach the intellectual issues with which contemporary painting has become enamored since 1945 with the conceptual command of Rivers; nor do they handle irony half so well. What gives his images their sentient bite is his passionate response to art and life, compellingly expressed throughout the show. A number of the images here boasted a quality in dangerously short supply on the current scene: soul.

Perhaps the masterpiece among these soulful paintings was his mural-sized work Public and Private, 1984–85. This tour-de-force display of media appropriation and collage construction is not merely about those processes or methods. It is instead a humanist statement of haunting magnitude. The imagery in Public and Private, culled from a variety of photographic sources, mixes such recognizable figures as Dwight David Eisenhower, Fidel Castro, and Fred Astaire with less renowned individuals, some of whom one supposes are known only to the artist or his family and friends. The variously scaled figures are woven together in tapestry fashion in overlapping arrangements with objects, such as a house and a ’50s Chevy. The composition is at first riveting as information alone, but soon the viewer’s experience seems to change quickly and imperceptively. Here Rivers works his special brand of magic, making one care about the painting by means of the curiously dimensional presentation. The sculptural surface projects out toward the viewer like some strange and marvelous theatrical tableau in which the drama being played out refers to the shifting perspectives of time, and the objective fact of history gives way to the subjective act of remembrance. The appearances of the figures and objects, which both do and do not resemble photographs, underscores this theme. At least this is the effect engendered by such stylistic devices as the deletion of one eye in a face, the way entire figures are rubbed out—or over—with spots of color, or the manner in which certain contours of form are darkened and not others—all prototypical Rivers signatures.

This drama of time is played out with even more pronounced psychological implications in a powerful portrait of family binds, Entwined Figures, 1984–85, in which three people we take to be a father, mother, and young daughter elicit genuinely touching responses on the basis of how they appear simultaneously to fade in and out, here and there, near and far, together and finally apart.

Other paintings in the show—including those featuring Fred Astaire and others that refer to a number of different painters, ranging from Matisse and Léger to Lichtenstein and Grooms—were no less complex.

Ronny Cohen