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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Larry Rivers

Delacroix, 1830 - Chaos and Purpose, 1993, Larry Rivers
One of the concepts I try to instill in teaching art history is that one era does not suddenly stop when the next one begins. Unlike history in general, cultural history, seldom works that way. It's easy to say that the 1950s ended with the assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963. It's not hard to make a case that our current historic era began on September 11, 2001 (9-11). Similar dates include July 4, 1776, and April 12, 1861, and December 7, 1941. Art historians usually mark the high Renaissance as between the years 1480 and 1520; but they also talk about the Early Renaissance and the Late Renaissance as transitional periods before and after. The advent of our current Postmodern era is much the same. It fades in around 1960 with the first noticeable scents of Pop Art while the Modern Art era petered out with the last dying breaths of Minimalism some fifteen years later. Don't ask why we have never called this transitional period "Late Modernism" or "Early Postmodernism." If the Postmodern era began with Pop, then one of the most underrated artists from this nascent period would have to be the American musician, painter, and filmmaker, Larry Rivers.
Self Portrait, 1998, Larry Rivers
Doing Art, Larry Rivers. Childhood Memories?
Larry Rivers was born in 1923 with the Jewish mouthful moniker, Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg (my spellchecker just regurgitated). He grew up in the Bronx and, not surprisingly, changed his name when he became a saxophonist with a jazz group called the Mudcats around 1940--Larry Rivers and the Mudcats. Bent on becoming a serious musician, Rivers studied for a year at the Julliard School of Music before changing his mind, deciding to become a painter instead. He spent the next year at the Hans Hoffman School of Art before earning a BA at New York University in art education. Though he was never a star performer as an Abstract Expressionist, he was, given the era, no stranger to non-representational art and the New York School.

Friends, (detail from The Studio), 1950, Larry Rivers
Rivers was a transitional artist at the beginning of a transitional period in art. He's been called the "Grandfather (or Godfather) of Pop." That is to say, he began merging popular consumer images with his latent abstraction at some point between 1945 and the early 1950s, though its hard to pinpoint a single work marking this evolution. Evolutions don't work that way. If one had to choose a landmark piece, Rivers' 1950 The Studio would be as good as any. His Friends (left) was one small segment of that work. The two figures are Rivers and the American writer, poet, and art critic Frank O'Hara. Though Rivers was married three times and fathered three children, he also maintained a life-long relationship with O'Hara.

Camel Quartet, 1978, Larry Rivers
Just as Larry Rivers was not a leading Abstract Expressionist, neither was he a leading Pop Artist. It might be more accurate to say he simply "pointed the way." Lichtenstein, Johns, Warhol, and a whole host of household names from the annuls of Pop history simply took it from there. However, it might be safe to say that Rivers later did for Camel cigarettes (right) what Warhol did for Campbell's soup. All during the fifties and sixties Rivers' reputation continued to grow, though his diverse interests largely kept him from enjoying much in the way of fame and fortune, except for the $32,000 he won on the TV game show, $64,000 Question. Instead, Rivers traveled abroad, to Africa, France, and Russia involving himself in various projects from stage set design to NBC's Experimental Television series. Rivers' Parts of the Face, French Vocabulary Lesson, (below) dates from 1961 when he spent a few months in France playing in a jazz group and visiting art museums.

Parts of the Face, French Vocabulary Lesson, 1961, Larry Rivers--pure Pop.
As is the case with many artists, now and then, Larry Rivers explored an area of interest not just with a single painting, but a group of similar, related works (galleries love this idea). One of Rivers' series from the 1970s dealt with the Boston Massacre. His Ready-Aim (from Boston Massacre), (below) is typical, as is his Red Coats (Fold-Out) From Boston Massacre (just below that). As I've mentioned in previous items over the past week, Larry Rivers is another artist who doesn't lend himself easily to labels (though I've probably used a few too many in discussing him here). Like Gerhard Richter and a few others, Rivers is further proof that artists need not adhere to a single area of style or content. Though there is a single, drippy, watercolor quality to nearly all of Rivers' work, it reflects more the nature of the painter's early training (as with Hans Hoffman) than a willful style. Rivers' Delacroix, 1830 - Chaos and Purpose (top), dates from late in Rivers' career (1993), recalling his time in France and repeated visits to the Louvre. Larry Rivers died in 2002 just three days short of his seventy-ninth birthday, having been active up until about four months before his death.

Ready-Aim (from Boston Massacre), 1970, Larry Rivers

Red Coats (Fold-Out, From Boston Massacre), 1970, Larry Rivers

Now and Then, 1981, Larry Rivers
(Love the title).


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