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Larry Rivers: Major Early Works - 1952-1966 - At Guild Hall

Originally Posted: August 12, 2008

Joan Baum

"History of the Russian Revolution (From Marx to Mayakovsky)" by Larry Rivers, 1965, construction of wood, oil, charcoal, serigraphs, pencil, and photomechanical reproductions on canvas, wood, paper, metal, plexiglass, glass, and fiberboard, 14'4" x 32'5" x 18", From the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966.

East Hampton - Six years ago to the month, the Hamptons' (arguably) most eclectic free-wheeling art spirit died at the age of 79, leaving a legacy of controversial avant-garde multimedia artwork and indisputable legends of outrageous behavior - a force of nature to many of his contemporaries and to his self-styled Pop Art heirs. The poet Frank O'Hara once described Larry Rivers as entering a scene "like a demented telephone." But as the Guild Hall exhibit demonstrates, wherever the phone may have been located, (O'Hara speculated on various rooms), the communication is clear, clearer, perhaps, than it was years ago. In the words of Sam Rivers, Larry Rivers' son with the artist and Bridgehampton gallery owner, Daria Deshuk, "the careful selection of works here illustrates and illuminates Rivers' instrumental role in fundamentally changing the nature of 20th century art."

It was shortly after Rivers' death in August 2002, notes Guild Hall Museum curator Christina Mossaides Strassfield that discussions began about mounting an exhibition of Rivers' work in the 1950s and 1960s, a period as bohemian hot, artistically experimental and wildly hip as the exhibit's accompanying video in the Boots Lamb Education Center shows. Here, disjointed but fascinating footage follows Rivers conducting interviews, being interviewed and playing the sax - not to mention shots, also, of Abbie Hoffman under Quaaludes getting a vasectomy. The video (compiled by David Joel, director of the Larry Rivers Foundation, who worked with Rivers), and several photographic stills on the Center's walls, mainly of Rivers at work on the monumental 1965 "History of the Russian Revolution" - a monumental installation job - augment this celebratory "reintroduction," as Sam Rivers says, of his dad "into the public eye."

The exhibit, comprising 20 works - paintings, drawings, prints, mixed media collages, sculpture - draws on loans from major institutions (among them MoMA, MMA, The Whitney, and The Hirshhorn), foundations and private collectors. The illustrated foldout checklist also contains "The Great Flowering, Larry Rivers Redefines the American Avant-Garde," by Sam Hunter, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Princeton, a short essay that includes Rivers' own comments on his intentions - some so casual as to belie the intense academic and self-education that marked his professional shift from music to art (studying at the Hans Hofmann School and NYU and then, of course, from 1953 on, when he moved to Southampton, enjoying the friendship, though not necessarily the influence, of, among others, Pollock and de Kooning. The big frontal nude of his onetime lover, "O'Hara Nude with Boots" (1954), makes a mischievous nod to Lucas Cranach the "Elder," while several paintings of his mother-in-law, Berdie, her huge breasts sagging into her distended stomach, demonstrate a "send-up" of the "pulchritudinous nudes" favored by painters such as Rubens, as Barbara Goldsmith remarks in a separate pictorial essay also available to visitors.

"The Greatest Homosexual" by Larry Rivers, 1964, oil, collage, pencil and colored
pencil on canvas, 80" x 61", From the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculp-
ture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966.

With Rivers, it's easier to say what he was not rather than what he was. He went his own non-abstract, non-representational way, playing with art movement ideas, rather than subscribing to them. Still, at various stages, he put a recognizable, if eccentric, stamp on what he did with figures and historical events. How cleverly parodic but also visually pleasing to see the large 1964 oil, collage, pencil and colored pencil on canvas multiple Napoleon, which he called "The Greatest Homosexual," a picture that, for all its fun, reflects a fine, integrated sense of design of color, line and texture (check out those strategically placed sewn threads).

In the first of Guild Hall's two main galleries, seated and reclining Berdie's are on display. Harsh and unsettling, Hunter calls them, though viewers might as easily see the paintings and drawings - as opposed to the bronzes, with their rough gouge marks - as oddly affectionate. Berdie, captured in vacant expression, an inevitable earth mother, as in "Double Portrait" (1955), where her two selves are at one with the accoutrements of the bedroom. The subtly colored "Portrait, Number II" (1953) - black dry-brush lines sweeping over areas of olive, mauve, pink and maroon, seems especially revealing of Rivers' familiarity with and distancing from Abstract Expressionism.

The exhibit takes off dramatically in the second gallery, however, where the large 1960s oils show Rivers' growing audaciousness and skill - paintings out not to shock but provoke thought, work that demonstrates what Sam Rivers calls his father's "transitional style," a fact that bothers some critics who like to label and keep their labels neat and unchanging. "Camel" and "Dutch Masters" and "Cigars III" show just how prescient Rivers was in exploring and exploiting the commercial world (well before Warhol), and, of course, "The History" is - well, it must be looked at for a long time. This is an amazing, dazzling, construction of canvas, wood, oil, charcoal, serigraphs, pencil, and photomechanical reproductions on canvas, wood, paper, metal, plexiglass, glass, and fiberboard, it is a spectacular and satisfying realization of a powerful conception. Though these relatively early works have been called "pivotal," Sam's word seems more to the point - in every sense: Larry Rivers was a "seminal" artist.

 • "Larry Rivers: Major early Works" will remain on view through Oct. 19. On Saturday, Aug. 23 at 3 p.m. Christina Strassfield will speak about them, and on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 3 p.m. Helen A. Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, will give a talk, "Larry Rivers: Life Into Art."

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