Rivers, Larry

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(b. 17 August 1923 in New York City; d. 14 August 2002 in Southampton, New York), painter and mixed-media artist who combined post-war abstract expressionist technique with figurative and pop cultural imagery and thus anticipated and influenced popular art of the 1960s.

Born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, Rivers was the eldest of three children of Shiah Grossberg, a plumber and later a trucking-company owner, and Sonya Hochberg, a homemaker. His Jewish parents were immigrants from Poland. When Rivers was seven, he learned to play the piano to accompany his father on the violin. Four years later he switched to the saxophone and became, at age seventeen, a professional jazz musician. For two years Rivers and his combo toured the "borscht belt" of the Catskill Mountains. One night they were introduced as "Larry Rivers and His Mudcats," and the new stage name stuck.

In 1942 Rivers enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and then was given a medical discharge. He continued playing with jazz bands and in 1944 studied composition in New York City at the Julliard School of Music. While touring, he met jazz pianist Jack Freillicher, whose painter wife, Jane, introduced Rivers to her circle of friends. Among them was the painter Neil Blaine, who began giving Rivers informal lessons in drawing and painting. That same year (1945), Rivers married Augusta Burger. They had one son but divorced in 1946.

From 1940 through 1941 Rivers experimented in painting by expressively copying covers and illustrations of art magazines. At Neil Blaine's suggestion, Rivers began to study painting seriously, enrolling in 1947 under the GI Bill at Hans Hofmann's School of Fine Arts. The German-born Hofmann was then one of the foremost painters and art teachers in the United States. As a painter, he was a part of a group known as abstract expressionists, whose work was characterized by hermetic drippings and cryptic slashings, thickly globbed all over large canvases. The group abhorred realistic, blatant subject matter, such as the magazine illustrations of Norman Rockwell and the quaint "Americana" paintings of Thomas Hart Benton. Instead of such obvious realism, Hoffmann's paintings and teaching philosophy concentrated on how thickly applied colors "pushed and pulled" each other optically on a canvas. In class Rivers often debated with Hofmann about abstraction versus representation, and Rivers defiantly painted realistic figures instead of the abstract work done by the other students (and Hofmann).

Rivers wanted to somehow combine the painterly abstract space of abstract expressionism with representational subject matter. His breakthrough came while viewing an exhibition of the turn-of-the-century French painter Pierre Bonnard. Bonnard's brightly colored and loosely painted canvases were mostly figure studies, which Rivers at first freely copied. He then painted his own figures of friends, as well as that of his ex-mother-in-law, Bertie, whose aged, flabby, nude flesh he painted repeatedly until her death in 1958.

Rivers frequented the hangout of the abstract expressionists, the Cedar Bar, where he hotly debated the merits of combining figuration with abstraction. In 1957 he became nationally famous as an authority on contemporary art when he won $32,000 answering questions about the subject on the $64,000 Challenge quiz show. He was then featured in Life magazine as a sax-playing, "boy wonder" painter. In 1961 he married Clarice Price. They had two daughters before divorcing in 1967.

Rivers visited Paris for eight months in 1950 and wrote poetry while staying there. He spent part of 1957 in Paris as well but soon returned to New York, at which time he began collaborating with poets, especially Frank O'Hara. Rivers combined poetry with images in prints and paintings. His interest in poetry and with words then led him in a new direction. With Cedar Bar Menu (1960), Rivers began to use photographic source material with stenciled lettering that labeled the photo source. Then he began a series of textbook vocabulary lesson images in paintings that combined nude figures and stenciled labels with arrows pointing to body parts. These works anticipated the conceptual art of the later 1960s. In part, this later movement emphasized the philosophical contemplation of language but abandoned the traditional painting-on-canvas retained by Rivers.

The hallmark of Rivers's painting is the combination of popular-culture subject matter with the loosely brushed painting style of abstract expressionism. While flattening the space surrounding a subject, he fragmented the image. He also added patches of pure paint that seemed to float on the surface of the canvas. His works bridged the then-dominant abstract expressionist generation and their later 1960s pop art rivals. The pop artists abandoned the loosely painted style and freely floating color patches retained by Rivers.

A notable example of Rivers's style is Dutch Masters and Cigars, no. 2 (1964). Its fragmented and doubled image was taken from an open cigar box. Inside the lid there is a reproduction of a Rembrandt painting. At the painted hinge between the reproduction's figures and the tobacco product appears the stenciled word "CIGAR." Then the image of the open box is repeated again at the bottom of the canvas, suggesting a close-up view of shelves of a tobacco shop. The figures and cigars are loosely painted, and color splotches are evenly dispersed throughout the canvas.

In an essay written for his 1965 retrospective, Frank O'Hara wrote that Rivers "had chosen to mirror his preoccupations and enthusiasms in an unprogrammatic way." Rivers did evoke eye-catching designs with equal attention to painterly concerns and to popular subject matter.

In 1965 Rivers began work on History of the Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky, which became a mixed-media work that combined seventy-six canvases mounted onto a wooden construction more than thirty-two feet long and fourteen feet high. With many relatives still living in Russia, Rivers gave this personal topic epic scope. Scenes, personalities, events, and symbols traced historical struggle. Loosely painted figures, photographs, stenciled letters, and found objects (including real weapons) are combined tabloid-like in his passionate perspective of Russia.

From the early to late 1960s, Rivers did collaborations with the Swiss-French sculptor Jean Tinguely. The Friendship of America and France works were two-sided paintings on motorized, revolving stands. Images included French currency, cigar boxes, and French/English vocabulary diagrams. Throughout the 1960s, Rivers collaborated on many projects. He did set designs for plays by Le Roi Jones (the African-American poet who changed his name to Amiri Baraka), as well as costume and set designs in 1966 for the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1968 Rivers collaborated on a film documentary that was set in Nigeria. The Nigerian government mistook the crew for mercenaries, and to escape execution, they fled the country. Later that year Rivers illustrated Terry Southern's novel The Donkey and the Darling.

In 1969 the Smith Haven Mall in Smith Haven, Long Island, commissioned Rivers to do a major work that would evoke the shopping experience in the mall. His Forty Feet of Fashion was that length and included that number of legs, hands, smiling lips, and dashing figures constructed in mixed media. Encased in clear plastic, it included slide projections of products and mall shops.

After the 1960s, Rivers's work combined the themes of cultural history, clichés of popular culture, art-world gossip, and autobiographical subjects, and he continued to collaborate with writers and to mix media. He died of cancer of the liver at the age of seventy-eight; his remains were cremated.

Rivers's autobiographies are Drawings and Digressions (1979), written with Carol Brightman; and What Did I Do?: The Unauthorized Autobiography (1992), written with Arnold Wenstein. Major studies include Sam Hunter, Larry Rivers (1970, rev. ed., 1971), and Helen A. Harrison, Larry Rivers (1984). Obituaries are in the New York Times (16 Aug. 2002) and the Manchester Guardian (17 Aug. 2002).

Patrick S. Smith

Larry Rivers

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Larry Rivers

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

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.cz□toms/PopArt/Biographies/rivers.html, and http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/psearch?. □

Rivers, Larry

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RIVERS, LARRY (1924–2002), U.S. painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and musician. Born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx to immigrant parents from the Ukraine, Rivers initially made his reputation as a jazz saxophonist. After a brief stint in the U.S. Army during World War ii (1942–43) he studied music theory and composition at the Juilliard School of Music (1944–45). Rivers started painting in 1945, and from 1947–48 he studied at the avant-garde Hans Hofmann School in New York. His initial work shows the influence of Abstract Expressionism.

In the early 1950s, Rivers began to paint autobiographical themes in pictures such as The Burial (1951, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana), a gesturally rendered canvas inspired by the memory of his grandmother's funeral, and Europe i (1956, Minneapolis Institute of Arts) and Europe ii (1956, private collection, New York), the latter based on a formal portrait of Polish relatives. Parody enters his art in these years; in Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953, Museum of Modern Art, New York), for example, a canvas mocking the grand heroics of 19th-century American history painting, Rivers appropriates the imagery of Emanuel Leutze's iconic painting of the same name (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) while also exploring paint application and other formal qualities. The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Rivers' version in 1951, his first painting to enter a major public collection.

This mode of parody also pervades History of Matzah (The Story of the Jews) (1982–84, private collection, New York), an ambitious project that attempts to tell the nearly four-millennium history of the Jews. Painted on commission, History of Matzah appears in a collage-like form with images and stories overlapping on three nine-by-fourteen-foot canvases in Part i, titled Before the Diaspora, Part ii, European Jewry, and Part iii, Immigration to America, all superimposed on a rendering of matzah. Other works influenced by Rivers' Jewish identity include a large mural, Fall in the Forest at Birkenau (1990), hanging in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; three posthumous portraits of the Holocaust memoirist Primo *Levi (1987–88, Collection La Stampa, Turin, Italy); and the illustrations for a Limited Editions Club publication of Isaac *Bashevis Singer's short story "The Magician of Lublin" (1984).

The multi-talented Rivers designed sets for the play Try! Try! (1951), written by Frank O'Hara, as well as a play by Le Roi Jones (1964) and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1966). With O'Hara, Rivers also wrote the play Kenneth Koch: A Tragedy (1954). In 1957 he began making welded metal sculpture. Rivers wrote poetry, acted on stage, including a stint as Lyndon Johnson in Kenneth Koch's The Election (1960), and continued to perform in jazz bands throughout his life. His 1992 autobiography, titled What Did I Do?, chronicles his life in often lurid detail.


L. Rivers with C. Brightman, Drawings and Digressions (1979); H.A. Harrison, Larry Rivers (1984); S. Hunter, Larry Rivers (1989); L. Rivers and A. Weinstein, What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography (1992); S. Baskind, "Effacing Difference: Larry Rivers' History of Matzah (The Story of the Jews)," in: Athanor (1999), 87–95; L. Rivers, Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist (2002).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]