Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers (American, 1923-2002)


Larry Rivers, original name Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, (born August17, 1923, New York, New York, U.S.—died August 14, 2002, Southampton, New York), American painter whose works frequently combined the vigorous, painterly brushstrokes of Expressionism with the commercial images of the pop art movement.


Rivers early developed an interest in jazz, and after briefly serving in the army during World War IIhe studied composition at the Julliard School of Music. One of his classmates there was Miles Davis, who introduced him to other jazz musicians, and Rivers was soon touring the States with different groups as a jazz saxophonist. In 1945, however, he was given a book on modern art and quickly discovered he had a natural talent for painting. From 1947 to 1948 he studied in the New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts, school of the prominent Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman. Rivers later studied at New York University College, graduating in 1951. His early paintings were exhibited in New York City in 1949.


Rivers’s first major work was The Burial (1951), a grim depiction of his grandmother’s funeral, based on the Burial at Ornansby Gustave Courbet. His Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953) was based on the familiar work by a 19th-century American painter, Emanuel Leutze. Though criticized for its banal subject matter and mixture of styles, the painting nonetheless attracted widespread attention. From 1951 to 1957 he made a series of portraits of his mother-in-law, of which the harshly realistic Double Portrait of Berdie (1955) is perhaps best known.


Early in the morning of July 24, 1966, a summertime party at a beach house on Fire Island, Long Island, began to break up. As the revelers started to drift home, the poet and art curator Frank O’Hara (1926–1966) walked out onto the beach and was hit by a speeding dune buggy. He died the next day.

Frank O’Hara’s greatest memorial is his Collected Poems, but he also quickly received an artistic homage from his friend and collaborator, artist Larry Rivers. From 1957 to 1960, Rivers and O’Hara had worked together on a project called Stones, a lithographic marriage of the visual and the verbal.


For his memorial portrait of O’Hara, Larry Rivers created this work, called O’Hara Reading, which is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collections. The piece used a characteristic technique of collage and multimedia, verbal and visual, in way that evoked his dead friend’s own poetic technique. Rivers took his central image of the poet from Fred McDarrah’s photograph of a 1959 reading; the black-and- white picture is colored and includes images of Leroi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, and Ray Bremser, who were also at the event.


O’Hara had had some minor successes as a poet during his lifetime, but he was best known in New York City’s cultural world as an instigator: bridging the worlds of art, poetry, and society; sparking ideas; initiating projects; and stoking creative energies through his charismatic personality. A friend and collaborator of artists of the New York School, O’Hara was dubbed “the poet among painters,” but he was generally seen as only a minor figure in a circle that extended from Jackson Pollock to Larry Rivers.


Yet when O’Hara’s literary executors Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery cleaned out his apartment, they were astonished to find file after file overflowing with poems. Ashbery introduced The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara in 1971 by saying that it would surprise everyone—“and would have surprised Frank even more”—to discover a volume of nearly five hundred pages.


Ashbery accounted for this in O’Hara’s method: “Dashing the poems off at odd moments—in his office at the Museum of Modern Art, in the street at lunchtime or even in a room full of people—he would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them.”


O’Hara was not an occasional poet or an amateur: he was deeply committed to his art, but he believed poetry was an instantaneous act, one that occurred between “two people, not two pages.” What O’Hara’s poetry needed to spark him into life was the city: the cacophony of daily life in all its ordinary glory. O’Hara made it a point to write a poem every lunch hour, based on his purposefully aimless walks around New York, and he had published a book called Lunch Poems in 1964.


Superficially, his poems were about nothing much in particular, and with characteristic modesty he called them his “I do this, I do that” poems. But O’Hara’s quirky eye for the telling detail turned these ephemeral jottings into art; his seductively deceptive lines would build to a moment of recognition or an emotional punch.


In his portrait of O’ Hara, Larry Rivers created a curving stream of words caught between two blue embankments made of construction paper. In the midst of life and art’s river, the print quotes the opening lines of “To a Poet,” a work that O’Hara wrote, with characteristic generosity, to praise an emerging writer named John Wieners.

Two years later he has possessed
     his beautiful style,
the meaning of which draws him further down
     into passion. . .


“Drawn down into passion”: It is almost as if O’Hara was writing about himself.


Rivers’s works were characterized by competent draftsmanship, a fine sense of colour, and the frequent use of complex, fragmentary, and multiple views. Beginning in 1961, commercial images, such as cigarette packages, figured prominently in his pictures, which, after 1963, frequently had elements of collage, construction, and sculpture. A particularly elaborate example of such mixed-media works was The History of the Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky(1965), which had some 30 individual paintings and included, among other objects, a machine gun. His autobiography, What Did I Do? (cowritten with Arnold Weinstein), was published in 1992.


River's work is included in the permanant collections of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum,  The Jewish Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art among others.


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