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Larry Rivers
“I knew that being in the presence of art, making art – even making love – couldn’t get at the feelings I felt when I played music.” – Larry Rivers
The Arts Arena | Harriet Lye
Larry Rivers (1923 – 2002) started his career as a jazz musician in New York City and also worked as a painter, sculptor, poet, actor, television personality, filmmaker, set designer, an MC at nightclubs, a popular personality on the lecture circuit, author and university professor. The New York Times called him an important, “outsize and irreverent personality,” and his eclectic career spanned a half century and bridged the art worlds of New York and Paris.

Rivers's prolific and diverse contributions to the art community make it difficult to contextualize his oeuvre. He is most often recognized as one of the key founding fathers of Pop Art. Andy Warhol recognizes Rivers’s influence in the development of Pop Art and in Warhol’s own work: “Larry’s painting style was unique – it wasn’t Abstract Expressionism and it wasn’t Pop, it fell into the period in between. But his personality was very Pop.” Rivers’s work elaborated an ongoing dialogue between Pop and Abstract Expressionism and, as an influential transitional artist, he built an expansive bridge between these two art movements. Often described as a “reactionary artist,” Rivers was responding to the Abstract Expressionists in his explorations of figurative work: his series of nudes from 1954 illustrated his excellent abilities as a draftsman and his inclination towards being culturally provocative.

Born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, in the Bronx, New York, he adopted the name Larry Rivers in 1940 after being introduced as “Larry Rivers and the Mudcats” at a New York City club. In 1942 he enlisted in the United States Army Air corps, but was discharged within a year for medical reasons. In 1944 he began his studies in music theory and composition at the Juilliard School of Music, where he met and befriended Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

In 1945, fellow musician Jack Freilicher showed Rivers a painting by Georges Braque; Rivers was greatly inspired by the Cubist paintings and philosophies and began to experiment with the medium himself.  He studied at Hans Hofmann’s School of painting between 1947 and 1948, and went on to receive a BA in art education from New York University. Rivers could be found at that moment emulating, if rather improbably, Émile Bonnard. Gregory Galligan, a scholar of modern American and French art, explains, in reference to Bonnard, that “The French Post-Impressionist’s coupling of an optical, color-based aesthetic with the established figurative tradition made a strong impression on Rivers.” Rivers’s eclectic and improvisatory sensibility landed him in Paris, where he lived for the better part of 1950.  It was in Paris that he found the large-scale history paintings, particularly in the Louvre, which would so influence his work. When Rivers returned to New York, he took up painting as a full-time profession and soon became part of the new generation of “gestural realists” that included Milton Avery, Will Barnet, Robert Goodnough, Grace Hartigan, Jasper Johns, Lester Johnson, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, and Robert Rauschenberg.

In 1949 Rivers had his first one-man exhibition at the Jane Street Gallery in New York.  John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara were among his friends. O’Hara said that Rivers “entered the scene like a demented telephone. Nobody knew whether to put it in the library, the kitchen or the toilet, but it was electric." Rivers designed the set for O’Hara’s play “Try! Try!” and in 1957 the two men began work on “Stones,” a collaborative mix of images and poetry in a series of lithographs. This was the first project for Tatyana Grosman’s company Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). Rivers continued to cultivate a strong interest in collaboration and worked with the poet Kenneth Koch on the collection of picture-poems New York 1959-1960. In 1961 he met Jean Tinguely, and together they produced several collaborative works, including the “The Friendship of America and France” shown at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Rivers also worked on a film adaption of a Jack Kerouac play called “Pull My Daisy,” along with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, David Amram, Richard Bellamy, Alice Neel, Sally Gross, Pablo Frank, with narration by Kerouac.

Rivers won third prize in the Corcoran Gallery national painting competition for his piece “Self-Figure” in 1955. Rivers’s painting “Double Portrait of Berdie” was purchased by the Whitney Museum later that same year. His first comprehensive retrospective in 1965 included 170 works comprised of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints. The show toured five U.S. museums. Rivers prepared “The History of The Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky” for inclusion at the final venue, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum. Rivers remarked that this work was “either the greatest painting-sculpture-mixed media of the 20th century, or the stupidest."

During the 1960s, in the height of his career, he continued to paint the figure and often included elements of stencilled lettering and photography. His works are clever, ironic, and his subject matter ranges from the erotic to social concerns. He is famous for reworking and reinterpreting classical paintings: in 1953 he completed his parody of the 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The Museum of Modern Art acquired this Rivers painting in 1955. Rivers said of it that “it was going to take my style of painting, charcoal drawing and rag wiping, to a new height. The mixture of grand art and absurdity was with me from the beginning.” Rivers completed his revision of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” (1830) in 1993 and called it “Delacroix 1830”:  Delacroix’s original depicts an insurgent mob “rallying around the flag-waving persona of Liberty during the July Revolution of 1830. Rivers's version puts a portrait of Delacroix – the artist-as-hero is undoubtedly a self-reference – against the backdrop of that painting.”

Rivers also designed the sets and costumes for Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Lukas Foss, which he set in a boxing ring, filmed a television documentary in central Africa with Pierre Gaisseau, entitled “Africa and I,” and completed “Some American History” for the De Menil Foundation.  His “Golden Oldies” series, on which he started work in 1978, is consistent with his efforts to investigate historical subject matter and to always be reflective and relevant: in this series, he re-examines his own works of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1990’s, Rivers’s work was included in a wide variety of comprehensive shows: a retrospective of his paintings and drawings, “Public and Private” toured the United States until 1992. In the fall of 1991, Rivers was featured in an exhibition “Pop Art” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and in “American Realism and Figurative Art 1952-1991”, an exhibition that traveled to five museums in Japan. The exhibition “Copier/Créer de Turner á Picasso, 300 Oeuvres inspirées par les Maîtres du Louvre,” organized by the Louvre in Paris in 1993, included several works by Rivers. “Hand-painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1956-62,” which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York in 1993, also included works by Rivers. One of his three dimensional works was selected for the exhibition “Slittamenti,” a segment of the 1993 Venice Biennale. A major retrospective of Rivers's work was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2002.
 
Rivers’s interests in the subject of fashion emerged in 1997 and continued as a theme in his “Fashion Show,” a 1999 solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York. He was working on another “Fashion Show” until three months before his death.  He died in August 2002, and was honored on the front page of The New York Times.. "For much of his career, Rivers was seen by observers and critics as a revolutionary deliberately opposing prevailing movements for the thrill of challenging the status quo," says Jacquelyn Serwer, Chief Curator at the Corcoran. "By now we can see Rivers’ rebellious moves as those of a true innovator whose once subversive ideas have become part of the accepted repertoire of contemporary art.
 

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