Larry Rivers

American Artist, Sculptor, Filmmaker and Musician

Born: August 17, 1923
New York
Died: August 14, 2002
Southampton, Long Island
The aesthetics of modernism, which we artists took as an absolute religion governing the present and indeed all of the future, now strikes me as I reassess it, as merely having been a style.

Summary of Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers was one of the most brash and brilliant figures of the post-war American art-world, an enfant terrible of the New York School, who rebelled against his Abstract Expressionist masters without ever abandoning the bold, gestural painting style he had learned in the painting classes of Hans Hoffman. A brilliant figurative artist who was seduced by the pop culture of the sixties, Rivers was adopted by the Pop Art generation of Warhol et al, but his continuing investment in an idea of the artist's touch, and his unique, expressive compositional style, meant that he never sat comfortably in that category either. While there is no doubting Warhol's assertion that Rivers's personality was "very Pop", he ultimately occupies a tricky and liminal position in the modern art world, on the boundary of abstraction and figuration, the serious and the throwaway, the Modernist and the Pop: of what the critic Clement Greenberg famously distinguished as "Avant-Garde and Kitsch".


Progression of Art


Washington Crossing the Delaware

This vast canvas, dominated by ochres, whites and greens, depicts George Washington's journey across the Delaware River in 1776, to launch a surprise attack on British forces during the American Revolutionary War. The raw elements of a figurative painting are all here: we can clearly make out the soldiers, the horses, the water and sky. But River's penciled sketch-work remains visible all over the canvas, while the figures themselves appear to float in mid-air, and the paintwork is characterized by smears and visible brushwork.

Rivers painted this epic work after reading the famous Russian novel War and Peace (1869). He said: "I wanted to make a work of art that included some aspect of national life [...] It was like getting in the ring with Tolstoy." At the same time, the work makes an obvious art-historical wink to Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting of the same name, a Romantic history painting which anchored the crossing of the Delaware to nationalist historical myth. River's painting was an act of open rebellion against such mythmaking, and to properly understand the work, we need to examine the context of its composition. Painted less than a decade after the end of World War Two during which more than 400,000 American soldiers died, and as the McCarthyist purges approached their peak, Rivers was almost visibly dismantling the Washington narrative in order to poke a stick at American patriotism.

The work also represents River's declaration of independence against his Abstract-Expressionist peers, in its move back towards a kind of fractured figurativeness. Rivers said: "I wanted to do something that was nothing to do with them. That said I didn't believe in their ideas, that I thought they were full of shit. It was some kind of childish obstinacy. That I didn't need their values." In this sense, the piece should be assessed in relation to the emergence of pure abstraction as the dominant mode of modern art in America following the Second World War, through the success of figures such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. As art writer Carrie Rickey puts it, "[i]n his upbeat rendition of the solemn themes in Emanuel Leutze's well-known 1851 canvas, Mr. Rivers wedded representation with abstraction, parodied art history, anticipated by a decade the concerns of both the Pop and color-field painters and prophetically engaged in what post-modernists might call appropriation and deconstruction."

Oil, graphite, and charcoal on linen - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


O'Hara Nude with Boots

In this taboo-busting, whimsical work from 1954, the poet Frank O'Hara, Rivers's close friend and sometimes lover, is revealed in full-length posture standing naked - a better term than nude - with his arms clasped on top of his head, gazing unabashedly at the viewer. He is wearing only leather combat boots, one foot propped up on a breeze block. Rivers painted a number of portraits of O'Hara, but this is by far the most provocative.

This portrait reveals Rivers's raw talent as a portraitist and draughtsman, a talent which was unfashionable at a time when Abstract Expressionism still reigned supreme. Again, however, Rivers's rebellion was political as well as aesthetic: the overt homoeroticism of the work, that is, was particularly daring during the 1950s, the era not only of the Red Scare, but also of the so-called Lavender Scare. Being gay in 1950s America, just like being a Communist, was seen as a threat to national security, so much so that the Government launched a witch-hunt to out homosexuals and have them removed from their posts. Standing at 2.5 meters tall, this painting makes an imposing and provocative statement in an era long before personal identity - let alone gay identity - was a suitable subject for modern art. As art critic Ken Johnson explains, "[t]he way the young, muscular O'Hara stands with hands on his head and one foot up on a concrete block creates a casual sexual vitality that slyly subverts high-minded traditions of the academic nude."

A closer look at the painting will reveal a witty dialogue between 'high' and 'low' cultural references. As Johnson suggests, the portrait mimics an Old Masters' painting in some aspects of its composition, but O'Hara also seems to be posing in the style of a contemporary pin-up. For the sitter himself, "what Larry was trying to do was keep it from being academic. But at the same time getting in the ring with [Theodore] Géricault," the French Romantic portraitist. O'Hara and Rivers's relationship was defined by a meeting of the high and low-brow. The pair were formidable intellectuals, who would spend much of their time discussing literature and art. But they were also party boys: O' Hara, in particular, was famous for cruising for sex in downtown New York.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Larry Rivers Foundation


The Last Civil War Veteran

This striking work from 1959 depicts a frail man lying in a bed with a military jacket hanging by the USA, and Confederate flags adorning the walls. At the top of the composition we can see a crudely rendered impression of floral wallpaper. The painting is copied from an image in Life magazine, recreated in Rivers's own Abstract Expressionist style, with vivid use of color and bold brushstrokes creating blurred and confused features.

Rivers was intrigued by the mass circulation of imagery, and by the role art could play in the mythologization of history in popular consciousness. So when a centenarian from Mississippi claimed to be the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War, Rivers saw an opportunity to explore themes of patriotism and authenticity: "[t]here was this one guy left from the Civil War. Now he was a media thing immediately; the last Civil War veteran. So I began getting interested in him and I did paintings. Then he died. They started to look up his records and it turned out that maybe he lied - and the guy who was supposed to be the 'next-to-the-last' was actually the last. But this was covered up - and Mr. Walter Williams, I believe his name was, was buried with honors." The lack of factual clarity made the media-story more interesting to Rivers, an emblem of the way truth is often buried or altered for the sake of patriotism, and the veneration of national myths. He explored the same theme two years later with Final Veteran: The Last Civil War Veteran in the Coffin (1961), a more figuratively accurate work.

In stylistic terms, the decision to recreate an image directly from a newspaper itself makes a powerful statement on the entwinement of art and mass culture in post-war America, and predicts the more obvious maneuvers of Andy Warhol in a similar artistic space. But whereas Warhol would simply generate reams of screen-printed reproductions from the daily news, Rivers continued to bring a modicum of individual expressive spirit to the reproduction process, the blurred face reminiscent, for example, of Francis Bacon's works from the same period.

Oil and charcoal on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Cedar Bar Menu

A painted canvas of whites, reds and blues provides the backdrop to a scattered list of names and prices. The apparently pedestrian theme of the piece - the menu at the Cedar Bar, a perennial haunt of New York School artists during the 1950s - belies the personal and cultural resonance of the image. This work marks the development of Rivers's style into his own, unique version of Pop Art, while at the same time making a set of more expansive allusions to modern art history and contemporary cultural politics.

The use of floating, stenciled letters is a technique that had been emerging in Rivers's work for some years. In some respects, it represents an irreverent analogy for the use of text and pseudo-textual symbols in the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey. But we can also sense the emergence of Pop Art in Rivers's focus on everyday subject-matter, while the incorporation of slogans and symbols from the world of spending and consumer capitalism clearly preempts works like Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans (1962), presented three years later. In fact, Warhol was right to place works like Cedar Bar Menu in the space between Abstract Expressionism and Pop. Like his contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Rivers presented themes from mass culture while retaining the vigorous gestural brushwork of the first-generation New York School artists. At the same time, the use of found text - including menus - in still-life painting had been familiar in modern art since the early days of the Cubists Picasso and Braque.

The Cedar Bar itself provided a vexed subject-matter for the work. Located on University Place in bohemian Greenwich Village, it was the site of numerous discussions and squabbles between the New York School artists. Jackson Pollock reportedly kicked down the men's room door, while Willem de Kooning was said to have threatened to punch critic Clement Greenberg in the face following a theoretical dispute. The bar was also notoriously unwelcome to queer men, with Rivers himself receiving homophobic abuse there. This apparently throwaway work, then, reveals itself on closer inspection to be implying subtle points about the politics and prejudices of modern art.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Dutch Masters and Cigars

Around the mid-point of his career, Rivers began to turn more emphatically to the insignia and iconography of consumer culture, in line with the explosion of Pop Art across the 1960s. In this 1963 work, he offers an expressive figurative reproduction of a packet of Dutch Masters Cigars, whose packets in turn feature a reproduction of Rembrandt's famous 1662 painting The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild. Perhaps looking back over the allusions to canonical artworks which peppered his back-catalogue, Rivers began to present those references more concertedly through the filter of consumer consciousness: in this case offering a copy of an advertiser's copy of an iconic painting. The piece contains his trademark free-floating lettering, sketch-markings and unfinished figures, occupying that space between high and low culture in which he felt so comfortable.

Art critic Blake Gopnik describes this piece as "Rivers's second-greatest work", one which points to the dissolution of old ways of producing art. "In Rivers's various riffs on the promotional campaign and its Dutch source," Gopnik asserts, "Rembrandt's original realism almost literally melts away into a sea of splashy abstract expressionist strokes. Some critics see these pictures as an ode to the Old Master, or as an attack on him, but I don't think that's how they work at all. They aren't, after all, about an intimate encounter with the Dutch original, or any evocation of such a direct and moving meeting. They are about how, in the modern United States, Rembrandt and his ilk come most easily to us by way of cigar boxes."

At the same time, we might posit a subtle commentary on the more long-established relationship between capitalism and high culture. The original figures are, after all representatives of a guild - a union of commercial craftsmen - living in the first national culture (seventeenth-century Holland) whose wealth was based on a modern model of capitalist growth. Whatever we make of Rivers's stance on contemporary American consumerism, he also seems to be reminding us that even in the age of Rembrandt, art relied on the markets.

Oil on canvas - Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, New York


Vocabulary Lesson (Polish)

In this work from 1964, one of several on the 'vocabulary lesson' theme, Rivers takes a further step towards figurative art, while also revealing his deep affection for pastiche. He depicts a woman reclining in imitation of works by Goya and Modigliani, while also offering a number of Cubist-style flourishes: the amputation of one leg, the partial removal of facial features, and the use of patches of distinct color to pick out different parts of the body. The piece is labelled with Polish words, and in the background we can see smears, brushstrokes, and other traits of incompleteness: as if the work were the document of an ongoing creative process. The technique of leaving patches of canvas bare to emphasize other areas is partially borrowed from Cezanne, while the use of lettering and words bears affinities with the work of Jasper Johns and the Pop Artists.

For art critic Jonathan Jones, Rivers's use of language begins to blur the boundaries between what is seen and what is meant by an artwork, a boundary that would later be decisively crossed by the Conceptual Artists. "What does a figurative artist do in an age of abstraction? He helps to give birth to conceptual art. Here Rivers adds unfamiliar and hence alienating words to a painted nude that is itself eerily unfinished. Like other artists in the mid-60s he uses language to question the nature of the art object itself, and indeed, the human body. Desire becomes a problem, if you don't know the words. This is both a painting and a philosophical challenge, in a way that echoes Magritte."

The series of which this work was a part received great critical acclaim for its combined elegance and irreverence. While they looked almost like authentic homages to Cubism, the paintings also raised a series of enigmatic and whimsical questions about the history and future of modern art, bringing together the aesthetic worlds of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, and figurative art.

Oil on canvas - Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York


Golden Oldies (1960's)

Towards the end of his career, Rivers's magpie-like attitude to art history began to take in his own creative output, as he cast a whimsical eye over the reputation that his own work had accrued. In 1965, his first retrospective exhibition had toured five U.S. museums, presenting 170 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints to an appreciative public and critical audience. Rivers was therefore in the unusual position by his late middle age of already being able to subvert his own status as an art-world icon.

In the ironically titled Golden Oldies series of the late 1970s and 1980s, he began to produce collage-style works incorporating reproductions of the paintings which had made him famous. In Golden Oldies (1960s'), a silk tapestry created over a decade, we can see reproductions of his Last Civil War Veteran paintings, his Dutch Masters series, and his Camel Cigarettes series, as well as visual to Washington Crossing the Delaware and various other pieces. The labor-intensive method of production, with its connotations of Renaissance luxury and artisanship, stands in ironic contrast to the bathetic self-marketing implied by the content of the work. Like artists of the following decades such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, Rivers seems to be almost courting the ire of the art-world cognoscenti, daring them to castigate him for cashing in on his own reputation, in a way that would only raise unanswerable questions about the entwinement of art and commerce.

Whatever we make of that particular - now well-worn - maneuver, it is a testament to Rivers's skill as a draughtsman and craftsman that the image arrests our attention for its stylistic refashioning of earlier works as well as for its ironic commentary on the self-monetization of his own oeuvre. Faced with accusations of 'selling out', Rivers was typically throwaway in his response: "[y]ou have to keep yourself amused and interested. You have to keep working. What I'm trying to say, is, it's all in a life. Sometimes you do something that is important and sometimes you're going to the bathroom. Maybe I'm at a point in my life when I'm going to the bathroom, who knows?"

Woven silk tapestry - Private Collection

Biography of Larry Rivers


Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, was born in the Bronx, New York in 1923, speaking only Yiddish until he was six years old. At the age of 17 he was reborn as Larry Rivers, a name given to him in a jazz club where he performed as a professional saxophonist.

He spent a year in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, before being medically retired and enrolling at the Juilliard School of Music in 1944. There, he formed friendships with the jazz musicians Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

Early years and training

Rivers did not come from an artistic background. "The only things in our house resembling art", he once commented, "were a cheap tapestry and a five-and-ten-cent-store 8'' by 10'' reproduction of a Spanish senorita holding a flower." In a sense, he fell into painting by mistake: it wasn't until 1944 that he contemplated an artistic career, when he was shown a book containing the works of Cubist artist Georges Braque by musician Jack Freilicher, partner of the painter Jane Freilicher. "I wanted to say, 'What's Cubism?'", he later recalled, "[b]ut suddenly I knew what Cubism was. Cubism told a young man from the Bronx he didn't know very much. Cubism didn't know about him or his nights walking all over Greenwich Village with his big horn slung over his shoulder, looking for a joint where he could sit and blow with a lot of other desperados. Cubism certainly didn't smoke pot or get high, Cubism was history in which he played no part. Where could I catch up?''

He was given a paintbrush by Jane Freilicher, with whom he would remain close friends after the breakup of her marriage to Jack. Within two weeks, Rivers recalled, he had found an activity on a "higher level" than jazz. He would play saxophone at night and draw for eight hours a day, perfecting his draughtsmanship while absorbing theories of color and form.

In 1945 he married Augusta Burger, with whom he had two sons, Steven and Joseph. He separated from Augusta a year later, however, leaving the family home in Maine and moving to Manhattan, where he began to socialize with painters, poets and dancers, living a freewheeling lifestyle which brought him into contact with the poets of the beat generation and the New York School.

In 1946 he enrolled at the New York-based school of Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hoffman, but he was never entirely comfortable with the orthodox abstract style which he encountered there. Four years later, Rivers's career took off when the revered art critic and academic voice of New York School painting Clement Greenberg praised the "superb plenitude and sensuousness" of this "amazing beginner." (Rivers fell out of favor two decades later, when Greenberg dismissed his work to a reporter, noting that "[y]ou can say now that I think he stinks".)

Rivers was a self-confessed hedonist, who said he wanted to "try everything". His sexuality played out in the portraits he produced: he was bisexual, married three times, had children by three different women, and was promiscuous in ways that bring many episodes in his biography into conflict with ethical norms. Rivers never self-identified as gay, or bisexual; though he was strikingly open about his relationships, he was reticent to be pigeonholed. Nonetheless, his portraits of his wives were less sensual than those of his lovers, such as O'Hara Nude with Boots (1954), depicting the great New York poet and Rivers's sometime sexual partner Frank O'Hara. Years of drinking and drug taking - "heroin, cocaine, opium, quaaludes, speed, mescaline, LSD, angel dust" were amongst the various substances he recalls- took their toll even by his early middle age. In 1952 Rivers attempted suicide, and was rescued by O'Hara. Rivers later told reporters it had been a mistake: "I don't think I'd planned on dying when I reached for the razor blade. The slashes were only about a half inch long." On another occasion he reportedly threatened to jump from a terrace high up at a friend's Park Avenue apartment as a stunt. News stories about Rivers were peppered with such anecdotes, depicting a strange, exhibitionist, and somewhat troubled man.

By the mid-1950s New York had replaced Paris as the epicenter of the modern art-world. Rivers took up his role within that world as a kind of enfant terrible, shooting to celebrity partly by associating with more famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning. He was seen as one of the New York scene's 'bad boys', often spotted dancing on the bar at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South, clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels. O'Hara said: "[h]e came in like a demented telephone. Nobody knew whether they wanted it in the library, the kitchen or the toilet, but it was electric." Keeping up his habits of sexual promiscuity, Rivers would dress in cowboy boots, tight pants, inside-out shirts and extravagant ties, which he would often wear two at a time.

Rivers was not afraid to manipulate his acquaintances into posing naked for him, according to art writer and confidante Barbara Goldsmith. She said: "Larry wanted all of his friends to pose nude. These portraits were disturbing and wonderful in their precise draftsmanship and objectivity. He wanted me to pose in the nude, too, but I told him that wasn't on the cards. His ploys were quite ingenious, though: he'd say, 'Nude or not, kid, you look the same to me.' Or 'Someday you'll be happy you had the body you have today' That was one of his favorite expressions."

Rivers's more serious, intellectual assiduous side sometimes appeared in conflict with his flamboyant, showman-like traits. This battle would manifest itself in his work, which often seemed full of stylistic and thematic contradictions. In 1958, he won $32,000 as an art expert on the quiz show The $64,000 Challenge. It later emerged that someone tried to pass on an envelope containing the answers beforehand, but he was proud to say he declined it. Collecting his takings, he took them straight to a bar, where he bought a round of drinks for 300 people.

Mature Period

In 1961, Rivers interviewed Clarice Price, a Welsh school teacher, for the position of nanny. He fell in love with her, and they married that year. She became the subject of his groundbreaking work Parts of the Face: French Vocabulary Lesson (1961), in which we see his Abstract Expressionist style moving playfully towards the threshold of what would become known as Pop Art. Larry and Clarice separated six years later having had two daughters, Gwynn and Emma.

By the mid-1960s Rivers was at his professional peak. He seemed to flit between artistic movements, creating a body of work that was at once abstract and figurative, serious and superficial, backwards-looking and stylistically adventurous. John Canaday, chief art critic of The New York Times, described him as "the cleverest, even the foxiest, painter at work in the country, an artist who can do anything he wants with a brush". As his work swerved between Abstract Expressionism and the contemporary French style of Nouveau Réalisme - having spent various periods of his professional life in Paris, Rivers was close to many artists associated with that movement - he began to shift the impetus of American Modernist painting, making way for the emergence of Pop Art.

Andy Warhol, who openly admitted his debt to Rivers, stated: "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 personality continued to grab attention as the sixties came and went. In 1979, New York Times art critic Peter Schjeldahl described Rivers as "one of the most fascinating personalities in the last 30 years of art".

Rivers began to experience heart problems at a relatively young age. By the 1970s he was experiencing symptoms of cardiac illness, but he failed to properly address them until he suffered a heart attack two decades later.

Late Years and Death

In 1981, Rivers began a romantic relationship with the young artist Daria Deshuk. Four years later they had a son, Sambo Deshuk Rivers. In 1992, Rivers's outrageous autobiography was published, revealing how just morally questionable his attitudes towards sex really were. He laid bare the darkest secrets of his romantic history, including a huge number of affairs and conquests, one involving a 15-year-old girl when the artist was in his forties. Rivers's younger daughter, Emma Tamburlini, also accused him of making a film that amounted to "child pornography" about her and her sister, detailing the development of their bodies across puberty. The making of the documentary, entitled Growing, involved filming them naked, zooming in on their breasts, and asking them questions about their sexuality. Rivers claimed at the time to be breaking taboos, but it has been difficult for most contemporary commentators to accept this defense.

Towards the end of his life Rivers suffered from a bad back, cardiac problems and a neurological issue that made his left hand shake uncontrollably. But he remained a socialite until the end. As he lay dying in 2002, according to journalist and close friend Barbara Probst Solomon, his friends trouped one by one into his living room in Southampton, Long Island, which had been converted into a hospital room complete with nurses and medical paraphernalia. The pair of them discussed art when Solomon saw him in his final days: "'Larry,' I said, 'about Duchamp...' He knew I was referring to Duchamp's secret, that the sole work of his last sixteen years was his obsessive involvement with the body of his great love, the realistic Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins which he had tried to reproduce, while concealing what he was working on from the public. He called the work Etant Donnés. In the end even Duchamp could not totally banish the body, the figurative. 'Larry,' I repeated. 'About Duchamp - you won.'"

Larry Rivers died at his home in 2002, at the age of 78. The cause of death was liver cancer. His friend Barbara Goldsmith recounted her last meeting with him: "[h]e told me: 'They say I'm terminal.' I answered, 'Listen, Larry, we're all terminal - it's just a question of time.' Soon he fell asleep. Two days later I was told Larry had asked to have the morphine patch stepped up - he didn't want to stick around. That was so like Larry, doing things his own way."

The Legacy of Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers is considered by many to be the 'Godfather' of Pop Art, because he was one of the first artists to merge the non-figurative style of Abstract Expressionism with figurative motifs and icons, many of them plucked from pop culture. Rivers's canvases included symbols and logos borrowed from sources such as Camel Cigarette packets, Confederate flags, and Dutch Masters cigars - which, in an ironic twist, included a version of Rembrandt's Board Of The Drapers Guild on their packets. But he playfully denied any interest in reflecting on mass culture through his work. In his obituary, he was quoted as saying: "I have a bad arm, and am not interested in the art of holding up mirrors."

Nonetheless, the types of motifs Rivers used throughout his career appear in the work of some of Pop's most famous names. Andy Warhol relied on mass-produced, commercial imagery, and spoke of his influence from Rivers. In some ways, however, there are closer affinities between Rivers's work and that of artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose work trod a similar path between Pop and Abstract Expressionist tendencies. Ed Ruscha's use of printed words and signage might also be traced back to works of Rivers's such as Parts of the Face (1961).

River's influence on Pop also extends beyond his art. His hedonistic, exhibitionist lifestyle became an integral part of the creative face which he presented to the world. It was his desire to shock, to raise questions about the values of art and culture and to provoke the artistic establishment, that partly ensured his reputation, and which made him a true 'pop' artist.

At the same time, many critics would argue that the subtlety and dexterity of Rivers's thematic and formal traits place him outside any narrow definition of Pop. In some ways, his work has more in common with that of New York School peers such as Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher, which moved beyond the high abstraction of first-generation Abstract Expressionism through its incorporation of figurative forms, and its frequent reliance on literary sources and inspiration.

For his friend Barbara Probst Solomon, Rivers was, above all else, a proselytizer for the figurative. "Larry often is described as proto-pop, or the bridge to pop, but Pop Art came up behind him; it clearly wasn't his obsession. Nor, as a matter of fact, was his target the bourgeoisie. His true arrows were entwined with our history and aimed at abstract art. His true fury was aimed at Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, at what he considered to be their phoniness, and the power abstraction had over everything else."

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