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 - 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 - 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