New York

Larry Rivers

Tibor De Nagy

Larry Rivers has always been hard for art historians to place—being, on the one hand, a “painterly realist,” as Jonathan Fineberg calls him, and, on the other, a proto-Pop artist, for instance in his use of commercial imagery in the “French Money” and “Camel Cigarette” series (both begun in 1959). But this exhibition of twenty-eight choice works from the 1950s and ’60s presented Rivers instead as a “poet painter”—a reading of him most tellingly conveyed in the exuberant bouquet in Flower Poem, 1953.

Two of the other paintings in the show are rather notorious: The seated nude depicted in Augusta and the poet Frank O’Hara in O’Hara Nude with Boots, both 1954, were both Rivers’s lovers—or rather Augusta had been his wife and O’Hara his lover (the former is presented with classical dignity, while the grandly provocative depiction of the latter appears centered on the poet’s penis). The two images reveal the bisexual conflict that informs much of Rivers’s art, perhaps most ironically in the infamous The Greatest Homosexual, 1964 (not included in this show). This riff—to use the term Rivers might have used, as a jazz musician himself—on Jacques-Louis David’s The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries also opens the possibility of understanding Rivers as an appropriation artist avant la lettre.

It is worth noting in this regard that in The Wall, 1957, Matisse’s name is printed upside down on a painting that seems to abstract Matisse’s last blue nudes into a few bold flickers; and Picasso’s mocking portrait of his secretary, the poet Jaime Sabartes, as a grotesque clown is reproduced in gray. Other mournful mnemonic traces of art further contribute to the impression of a bittersweet relationship to a “heroic” past. Like Arshile Gorky, Rivers paints it out, but it remains resonant in its gestural remains. Rivers was as conflicted about the past—including his Jewish childhood, addressed in Bar Mitzvah Photograph Painting, 1961, which has the blurred word rejected stenciled across it (while also pointing to the tension between painting and photography that animates his work)—as he was about his sexuality. His art makes the poignant best of his conflicts, but it doesn’t resolve them.

Rivers partook in the Abstract-Expressionist attempt to “modernize”—dare one say Americanize?—French painting, thus escaping, in his case by slyly subverting, the long shadow, not to say spell, that the School of Paris had cast on modern art. After World War II, the French legacy seemed outdated, limited, and petrified, and above all to foreclose more contemporary possibilities of artmaking. This was especially true in New York, a triumphant immigrant city that staked its own claim to the banner of modernism. Rivers, a Jewish boy from the Bronx, took on the French greats and won, by showing that, after all, they were pretentious jokes—fakes and farces.

But for all his predatory aggression toward the classical modernist past—feeding on it as he destroyed it—he remained a tender-minded, if tongue-in-cheek, poet at heart. This is clear in the lithographs of the “Stones” series of 1957–59, his collaboration with O’Hara. One can’t help being struck by the anguished sentimentality of one lithograph on view here, an O’Hara poem titled “Love” that begins with the phrase “to be lost” and ends with “the sorrows of snow.” The page has quirky little drawings by Rivers, one of an incomplete figure and the others suggestive of fragments of figures, some of shadow, most transparent.

Mesmerizing gestures abound in Rivers’s paintings, sometimes forming patches of imagery, sometimes isolated in abstract purity. At his most representational, he remains a reluctant purist; at his purest, he remains a reluctant representationalist. Some of his works, such as Vocabulary Lesson (Polish), 1964–65, suggest the conflict between the verbal and the visual that informs Jasper Johns’s Conceptualism, while others, such as The Last Civil War Veteran, 1961, suggest the conflict between art (the flag “field paintings” in the background) and life (the dying bedridden figure) that Allan Kaprow tried to overcome. But what makes Rivers a memorable, durable artist is the “unique and persistent melancholy with which all his works are imbued,” to quote Baudelaire on Delacroix. Rivers is the tragicomic poet—and the anguished clown—of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Donald Kuspit