Larry Rivers (born 1923) was an American artist who, in the course of his career, was also a jazz musician, writer, and filmmaker. His painting, primarily figurative, combined his origins in "action painting" with an often witty use of historical and pop icons.
Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg was born on August 17, 1923, in the Bronx, New York. His name was soon "anglicized" to Irving Grossberg, and it was not until age 18 that the future painter became known as Larry Rivers. The change of name perhaps indicated the showmanship that would mark his life and artistic endeavors.
Rivers initially hoped to make it as a musician, studying piano, and later saxophone, during his formative years. From 1940 to 1942 he performed with various jazz bands, but interrupted his musical career by enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His military service was cut short by a nervous disorder which forced him to return to civilian life. He resumed his musical career and studied at the Juilliard School of Music in 1944 and 1945.
The year 1945 was a turning point for Rivers. While touring with a band in Old Orchard, Maine, he began to paint, encouraged by the artist Jane Freilicher, wife of a fellow bandmember. Also in that year Rivers married Augusta Berger. The marriage dissolved within the year, though Rivers fathered a son, Steven, as well as acquiring a stepson, Joseph. In a rather unconventional arrangement, Rivers and his two sons lived with his mother-in-law, Bertha "Berdie" Berger, in the mid-1950s.
Though he continued to support himself as a musician, Rivers' interest in painting grew. He studied with Nell Blaine in 1946 and with abstractionist Hans Hofmann in 1947 and 1948. Though teacher and pupil frequently clashed, Hofmann made art seem "glamorous" to Rivers, and this possibility sowed the seeds of his transition from professional musician to painter.
In 1948 Rivers studied art, with the hope of eventually teaching it himself, at New York University. At this time he met William Baziotes (his teacher), Willem de Kooning, and other artists who were contributing to the birth of Abstract Expressionism and "action painting." A retrospective in 1948 at the Museum of Modern Art of Pierre Bonnard's Post-Impressionist painting clarified what Rivers called "the modern painter's ability to cope creatively with the tangible world." He began doing Bonnard-inspired pictures, such as the lushly colored Interior, Woman at a Table (1948). These representational pieces, at odds with the avant-garde style of his day, were exhibited in his first one-man show, at the Jane Street Gallery in 1949, and received favorable notices from several critics, including the influential Clement Greenberg.
Yet while Rivers became more entrenched in the downtown New York arts scene, meeting among others Franz Kline, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler, his confidence flagged. He spent much of his time with young contemporary poets, such as Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and, foremost, Frank O'Hara. In 1950 he left for eight months in Paris and found the large-scale history paintings in the Louvre an inspiration. The Burial (1951), a large oil canvas and his first to enter a public museum collection, drew on Jean Courbet's Burial at Ornans (1849), a grand treatment of a humble event. It also had as a source the funeral of Rivers' grandmother. This fusion of personal and public history, of nostalgia and grandeur, appears in much of Rivers' work.
The 1950s were years of experimentation as well as professional success for Rivers. He tried his hand at life-size plaster casts of figures that evoked ancient Roman statuary. He caused a sensation and much derision with his Washington Crossing the Delaware (1955), a heroic pastiche whose historical content and traditional draftsmanship deliberately flouted Abstract Expressionism. His mother-in-law was a frequent subject in the mid-1950s; the best known image of her is the candid nude, Double Portrait of Berdie (1955). Rivers divided his time during these years between New York City and Southhampton, Long Island.
Rivers was involved in many artistic collaborations dating back to 1952, when he designed sets for Frank O'Hara's play "Try! Try!" In 1957 he teamed again with O'Hara, this time on a lithographic series, Stones, produced by Tatyana Grosman's Universal Limited Art Editions. In 1960 Rivers worked with Kenneth Koch on several poetry-paintings. Other collaborators included Jean Tinguely (1961), LeRoi Jones (1964), and Terry Southern (1968-1977). In the late 1950s Rivers kept himself busy on many fronts, continuing to play jazz "gigs," appearing in the beat generation film "Pull My Daisy" (1959), and, in perhaps his most fabulous exploit, winning $32,000 on a television game show in 1957.
Rivers' style around 1960, with its anecdotal appropriations of current culture, anticipated the Pop movement. In 1961 and 1962 he did take-offs of various cigarette ad campaigns, while his Civil War Veteran series, begun in 1959, was based on photographs from Life magazine. Parts of the Body (1963) and its successors derive from foreign-language texts and illustrate Rivers' interest in verbal and visual alliance.
Rivers did not forsake the "big statement" of his earlier work. His 1963 billboard design for the first New York Film Festival encompasses an elaborate set of images, while his monumental A History of the Russian Revolution (1965) revives history painting of an earlier era. Later Rivers' look at Judaism with its tongue-in-cheek title, History of Matzoh (1982-1984), involved large-scale public statement.
Rivers' second marriage, to Clarice Price, lasted from 1961 to 1967. In 1966 his long-time friend O'Hara died tragically. During these years Rivers made increasing use of mechanical techniques of stencilling, projected images, and airbrush. He also began making mixed-media constructions. The casual quality of his earlier work was replaced by a slicker surface, though his content was strongly personal, as in the aggressive ideology of the Some American History pictures (1969) or the autobiographical reflections of Golden Oldies, a series commissioned in 1978. A strong dose of sexuality is often present. Expanding his artistic pursuits, Rivers travelled to Africa in 1967 to help work on a television film and then acted in several others. Film and video took on greater importance for Rivers, especially after 1970.
In 1972 he taught at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and in 1973 he had exhibitions in Brussels and New York. In 1974 he finished his Japan series. He was represented at the documentary 6 in 1977. And later in 1980-81 he was given his first Eurpean retrospective at Hanover, Munich and Berlin.
Larry Rivers' restlessness led to a career of remarkable diversity. His offbeat synthesis of high and low culture, his union of private and public expression, and his defiant stance made him a true "original."
Further Reading on Larry Rivers
For a discussion of the cultural climate from which Larry Rivers emerged see Irving Sandler, The New York (1978). Both Sam Hunter, Larry Rivers (1969) and Helen A. Harrison, Larry Rivers (1984) are fine surveys of the artist. Carol Brightman and Larry Rivers, Drawings and Digressions (1979) provides a comprehensive view of the artist's outlook in his own words. Additional information about Rivers can be found on the Internet at the following web addresses: http://www.fi.muni.cztoms/PopArt/Biographies/rivers.html, and http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/psearch?.