New York

Larry Rivers

Marlborough | Midtown

This was a delicious show, upbeat and consistent. Larry Rivers exhibited 35 new paintings from the past two years, most of them foamboard wall reliefs done by mounting cut-out chunks of images previously painted on paper or canvas, cutting the mounts to match the contours, and then reassembling the pieces. The raised areas stick out as much as six inches. They can appear even thicker, but so smooth is the flow of detail, you sometimes forget that they project at all.

The latter effect is a reverse illusion: you see a flat surface hopping with dramatic, shallow spatial shifts of the kind that most Modern painting has led you to expect. Next, you see the complex sculptural trick for what it is: a mongrel busywork construction that diverts the artist‘s graphic acuity so that it reenters the picture by the back way. Rivers‘ use of figures from photographs similarly intensifies the viewer‘s recognitions. Tracing with his zip-smudge-and-squiggle line,he animates the given resemblance, identifying pungencies of character that photography‘s luck with detail habitually misses.

The showstoppers here comprise a series of four outsized, revisory homages to Marcel Duchamp‘s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912. Each of the pictures splits the original denatured motion study into halves, interpolating the image of a doll-like anatomical nymph walking down a flight of wooden stairs. Glossing Duchamp‘s wood tones, Rivers makes gradations of single colors extend from their fullest saturations at the nude girl‘s contours, thus giving each painting its own peculiar overall cast. Seventy-Five Years Later: Indigo, 1987, is veiled in blue—the gaudy tint, say, of a Miami Vice bedroom interlude. The frontal nude is sensually exact and dreamlike in her containment. A caricature of a caricature (Duchamp was doubly taking off on academic boudoir painting and on Cubism at its inception), the whole image rocks with uncertainty: do we dream or jerk awake, laughing?

What John Ashbery calls Rivers’ “slashing indirection” plays on the discrepancies between figures and their surroundings, between human inclination and official memory. He can blend telling bits of history or else invent connective tissue of a strictly pictorial kind, releasing the recognizable figure into vectored space so that an abstract energy extrudes. Dancer in an Abstract Field: Fred Flying II, 1987, sings with that sort of dispersive energy. Umber Blues—Portrait of Dick Schwartz, 1987, has an opposite emphasis, not breezy at all. Here, a heavy, naked brown figure, seen both kneeling and reclining, intently hoists a saxophone amid lumps of tossed, pale-blue bedding. The blunt nakedness commands space catastrophically, like a juggernaut.

Rivers is one of the few painters who can do more than is necessary to a picture and not have his efforts look like overtime fuss. If he makes work for himself, that‘s his reality principle and his pleasure, both. Because he thinks with his technique, he is committed to putting stumbling blocks in the way of his felicities, lest his thought run glib. His new paintings are all the more remarkable for their color, which proceeds in great choral sweeps—tempered, dulcet, and true. For a while, in the past decade or so, it looked as if Rivers were just keeping his hand in, succumbing to a propensity for the merely chic. Even the lightweight pieces in this show—the takeoffs on underwear ads, for example—have something full-blooded about them. Rivers is rounding out his genius.

Bill Berkson