Washington, DC

Left: Larry Rivers, The Greatest Homosexual, 1964, oil, collage, and pencil on canvas, 80 x 61“. Right: Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953, oil, graphite, and charcoal on linen, 83 x 111”.

Left: Larry Rivers, The Greatest Homosexual, 1964, oil, collage, and pencil on canvas, 80 x 61“. Right: Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953, oil, graphite, and charcoal on linen, 83 x 111”.

Larry Rivers

Corcoran Gallery of Art

When Barbara Rose started shopping the idea of a Larry Rivers retrospective, MoMA and the Whitney turned her down. She ended up at the Corcoran, and it’s a perfect fit. I’d guess that outside Washington the Corcoran is still thought of as home to the knuckle-under specialists who lost their nerve over Mapplethorpe; despite braver leadership since 1989, it nevertheless often appears as though the museum is attempting to cozy up to risk without getting into any real trouble.

With “Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist,” the Corcoran hangs its hopes on an enfant terrible who’s pushing eighty, sporting both earring and hearing aid. The bargain struck by director David C. Levy is that he’ll do his best to keep his former bandmate in the history books, straight-facedly crediting Rivers with “a more complex and subtle vision of pop” than Johns, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, so long as his pal doesn’t mind coughing up the mixture of old-school know-how and time-tested unconventionality demanded by the local paying public, the only real audience for this nontraveling show.

Almost every approbatory estimation of Rivers takes note of his countercultural assiduity—all the painters and poets, the women, the men, the saxes, the syringes—and the Corcoran has made a particularly heavy investment in the myth. Banking on our selective memories and brandishing a less than keen sense of metaphor, chief curator Jacquelyn Days Serwer goes so far as to speak of “the sweep of Rivers’ career from his beginnings as the James Dean of the art world to his current old master status as an exalted Marlon Brando figure.” Rose radicalizes Rivers as “the art rebel with a cause, which was the thoroughly unfashionable one of drawing, hand painting, and the observation of daily life that Robert Henri had counseled was the essence of art.” She accomplishes this sleight of hand by positing the Greenbergian opposition as an orthodoxy (which it was) and a retrograde one (which it wasn’t).

The case is made for Rivers as a latter-day history painter whose main insight is that, whether personal or epochal, art-world or Hollywood, history is kind of a mess. The inescapable suspicion, though, is that he developed his trademark scratchy, patchy style as an opportunistic compromise between the modern and the retardataire and chose to tangle with Rembrandt, Géricault, Courbet, and even Leutze for no other reason than an ambition to be judged their peer. If for a while he enjoyed a vogue as a tony illustrator, collaborating with Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch and doing magazine covers, perhaps it was because his natural if less than extraordinary abilities as a draftsman made plain his fealty to the subject matter, while his inertly abstract passages alluded to those powers of the text that are irreproducible.

Rivers’s most successful mode is both joyless and unserious; witness the career-defining Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953. Going for scabrous comedy, he falls flat, as when he clumsily undertook the eminently reasonable idea of giving Manet’s Olympia a race reversal, or when, apropos of nothing, he named his 1964 takeoff on David’s portrait of Napoléon in the National Gallery The Greatest Homosexual. And he lacks the gravitas and imagination to pull off somber remembrances of slavery or the Holocaust. His absolute nadir is a trio of late-’80s portraits of Primo Levi, one of which finds the memoirist posing pensively, the image of a bald concentration-camp inmate superimposed on his grizzled head—a cute conceit when Paul Klee used it for a cat obsessed with a bird it longed to catch.

Rivers’s talents as a contrarian have likewise been overstated. It was when he was most in tune with at least one cheesy strain of the zeitgeist that he was most bearable. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he still may not have been much good, but he was brash and trashy in a pleather-and-shag, lightbulb peep-show-sign way. As history painting, the Hef-commissioned Plexiglas Playmate, 1966, is more eloquent than the sprawling curio that is The History of the Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky, 1965, but its garish, bumptious ilk went unrepresented in this exhibition. There was nothing from the 1970 series of girlie constructions “Me and My Shadow,” no airbrushed portrait of Miss Oregon with her dress undone, no tribute to Jean Shrimpton’s vinyl clothing. Had he not been reined in, Rivers could have offered the Corcoran some measure of redemption as an unblinking purveyor of lewdness. Where was Boucher’s Punishment, 1981, with the painter flicking a whip at a plump French rump? Or America’s No. 1 Problem, 1968, with its shaft-length grudge match between black and white cocks?

Not that such a focus would have made the proceedings much more fun. I’m convinced the only pleasure Larry Rivers has ever thought about is his own, which is the main reason he’s just about the unsexiest horndog in the history of nonconformity. Over the past decade, mass-cult outlets from Prozac Nation to Loveline to Jerry Springer have thoroughly clued us in to the banality of naughtiness. If the libertine is no longer the folk hero he once was, it’s because we know precisely how predictably he’s engendered by the standard pathologies.

After a half century of Beat worship, nearly a whole century of appropriation, and a century and a half of la vie de bohème, I can’t begin to fathom what a genuine rebel looks like. But a third-rate follower of “America’s classical music” whose lackadaisical stumblings as a painter have been considered old hat by book-jacket designers for at least twenty years is not it.

Glenn Dixon is a contributing writer for Washington City Paper.