Attaching a singularly defining label to Larry Rivers has remained an elusive task for many who have tried to contextualize his more than 50-year contribution to the arts. Rivers was an accomplished jazz musician, painter, sculptor, poet, actor, television personality, filmmaker, nightclub MC, popular lecture-circuit personality, author and teacher. He has been aptly referred to as “a renaissance man,” but perhaps he’s most often recognized, and, ironically at times, equally underappreciated, as one of, if not the key founding fathers of pop art.
Andy Warhol never made it a secret that he was influenced by Rivers’ art, but in perhaps a more revealing quote from the book “Popism” Warhol recognizes Rivers’ unique persona as an influential ingredient in the development of pop art, saying, “Larry’s painting style was unique—it wasn’t abstract expressionism and it wasn’t pop. It fell into the period in between. But his personality was very pop.”
It was Rivers’ pop personality that motivated him to be out in front of his works, serving as part of the package, a delivery system to drive home his particular point of view. Critics have often accused Rivers of stealing the spotlight from his own work. But Rivers considered it more of a way to authenticate his work, because his work could not be authenticated by any particular “ism.” It’s true that Rivers’ work wasn’t pop and wasn’t abstract expressionism; it was more of an ongoing dialogue with art and ideas, an expansive bridge between two significant art movements.
There’s a certain prophetic irony in the name Rivers. He became famous for making a work about a river crossing, then continued to cultivate a career as an influential transitional artist—a builder of bridges.
He was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, in the Bronx, New York, in 1923 to Samuel and Sonya Grossberg. In 1940 he began a career as a professional jazz saxophonist and soon changed his name after being introduced as “Larry Rivers and the Mudcats” at a New York City club. In 1942 he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps, but within a year was honorably discharged for medical reasons. In 1944 he studied music theory and composition at the Juilliard School of Music, where he met and became friends with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
In 1945, fellow musician Jack Freilicher showed Rivers a painting by Georges Braque, and that same year, after seeing the cubist work, Rivers started painting. From 1947 to 1948 he studied in Hans Hofmann’s school of painting. Following his experiences with Hofmann, he continued his studies. He received his B.A. in art education from New York University in 1951 and has since received honorary doctorates from several other institutions.
In 1949 he had his first one-man exhibition at the Jane Street Gallery in New York. That same year, he met and became friends with John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.
In 1950 he met Frank O’Hara. That same year he took his first trip to Europe, spending eight months in Paris reading and writing poetry. Beginning in 1950 and continuing until O’Hara’s death in July 1966, Rivers and O’Hara cultivated a uniquely creative friendship that produced numerous collaborations, as well as inspired paintings and poems. Beyond these more publicly recognized works, the two friends maintained a 15-year correspondence, exchanging numerous documents mostly comprised of letters with some poetry.
In 1951 Rivers’ works were shown by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery where he continued to show every year for the next decade with the exception of 1955. A 1952 collaboration with O’Hara included designing the stage set for O'Hara's play "Try! Try!"
In 1953 Rivers completed “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” a seminal work. Many years later, Rivers offered insight into the development of his persona by addressing the provocative nature of this work. In his autobiography he wrote, “The idea of Larry Rivers was born with ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware.’”
In 1954 he had his first exhibition of sculptures at the Stable Gallery, New York. In 1955 The Museum of Modern Art acquired “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” That same year he won third prize in the Corcoran Gallery national painting competition for “Self-Figure.” Rivers also painted “Double Portrait of Berdie” in 1955, which was soon purchased by the Whitney Museum.
In 1957 his mother-in law Berdie Burger, the subject of that famous work as well as many of Rivers’ other drawings and paintings, died at age 66. That same year he and O’Hara began work on “Stones,” a collaborative mix of images and poetry in a series of lithographs. This was the first project for Tatyana Grosman’s company ULAE. During this time Rivers also appeared on the television game show “The $64,000.00 Question,” where he and another contestant both won $32,000. In 1958 he spent a month in Paris and played in various jazz bands.
In 1959 he painted “Cedar Bar Menu I and II.” That same year, Rivers appeared in the film “Pull My Daisy,” adapted from a Jack Kerouac play, along with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, David Amram, Richard Bellamy, Alice Neel, Sally Gross, and Pablo Frank, with narration by Kerouac,
Rivers continued to cultivate a strong interest in collaboration, working with the poet Kenneth Koch on the collection of picture-poems “New York 1959-1960.” In 1961 he met Jean Tinguely, and together they produced several collaborative works, including the “The Friendship of America and France” shown at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.
Rivers’ first comprehensive retrospective in 1965 included 170 works comprised of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints. The show toured five U.S. museums. Rivers prepared “The History of The Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky” for inclusion at The Jewish Museum, which was the final venue. Of this work Rivers remarked: “It’s either the greatest painting-sculpture-mixed media of the twentieth century, or the stupidest."
In 1966 Rivers designed the sets and costumes for Stravinsky's “Oedipus Rex,” a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Lukas Foss. Rivers set the opera in a boxing ring and dressed the chorus in sleeveless undershirts and sunglasses. The production outraged critics and audience alike.
The following year he traveled to central Africa to film the television documentary “Africa and I” with Pierre Gaisseau. That same year he participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s memorial exhibition for poet and curator Frank O’Hara.
In 1968 he returned to Africa with Gaisseau to complete the documentary film. The two narrowly escaped execution as suspected mercenaries.
In 1970 he began working with videotape. That same year he completed “Some American History” for the De Menil Foundation.
In 1976 he traveled to Russia at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Artists where he lectured in several cities on contemporary American art. Traveling with his son, Steven Rivers, the two documented this trip, making videotapes along the way. Continuing to experiment with various mixed media, Rivers began producing works generated by combining color carbon paper—a technique that he demonstrated as a guest on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
In 1978 he began work on the “Golden Oldies” series where, consistent with his efforts to investigate historical subject matter, he reexamined his own works of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Throughout the early ‘80s Rivers’ works formed the basis for several retrospectives, beginning in 1980 with an exhibition at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas. In 1980 and ‘81 his works formed the basis for the traveling retrospective exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover Kunstverein, Munich Kunsthalle and Tübingen Staatliche Kunsthalle, Berlin. In 1983 The Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York, and Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida, exhibited a 30-year survey.
From 1984 to 1985, Rivers worked on the “History of Matzoh (the Story of the Jews),” commissioned by Sivia Loria and Jeffrey Loria in 1984— which was subsequently exhibited at The Jewish Museum, New York. In 2006, honoring Rivers’ desire to have this work exhibited in a more public venue, Jeffrey Loria donated “History of Matzoh” to Yale University.
Building on his earlier experimentations with three-dimensional works, Rivers developed a formula for creating three-dimensional relief paintings that focused on a broad range of subjects. He documented this technique in a film called “Duck Farm.”
In the 1990’s, Rivers’ work is either the subject of, or included in, a wide variety of comprehensive shows. A retrospective of his paintings and drawings, “Public and Private,” opened at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1990 and toured the United States until 1992. In the fall of 1991, he was featured in an exhibition “Pop Art” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and in “American Realism and Figurative Art 1952-1991”, an exhibition that traveled to five museums in Japan. The exhibition “Copier/Créer de Turner á Picasso, 300 Oeuvres inspirées par les Maîtres du Louvre”, organized by the Louvre in Paris in 1993, included several of his works. “Hand-painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1956-62,” which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York in 1993, also included works by Rivers. One of his three-dimensional works was selected for the exhibition “Slittamenti,” a segment of the 1993 Venice Biennale.
In 1992, Harper Collins, New York, published Rivers’ autobiography, “What did I do?” At the same time Rivers was also the subject of several scholarly monographs and videos and a doctoral dissertation.
In 1993, a solo exhibition entitled “Art and the Artist” marked a 30-year association with Marlborough Gallery in New York. The exhibition traveled to Marlborough in Madrid, Spain. In 1994 a show at the Nassau County Museum of Art titled “Art After Art” featured paintings by Rivers.
Rivers was also a central figure in the major exhibition entitled “Bop, Beat, and Beyond” in 1995 at Australia’s Museum of New South Wales. This show explored the connections between visual artists, musicians and writers of the beat period. He was also featured in the comprehensive exhibition “Beat Culture and the New America (1950-65)” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1995.
In 1997, the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Florida, mounted a retrospective of Rivers’ works from 1980 to 1997. Marlborough Gallery in New York featured his solo exhibition, “Recent Works,” and Ulysses Gallery in Vienna, Austria, featured his early works on paper.
Rivers’ early interests in fashion as a subject reemerged in 1997 and continued as a theme in his “Fashion Show,” a 1999 solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York. From 1999 through 2000 he embarked on a project commissioned by Jeffrey Loria, “The History of Hollywood,” a montage painted across four 8-foot by 10-foot panels, painted with Hollywood’s memorable moments. An additional 75 drawings came out of “The History of Hollywood.”
In 2001 Marlborough presented a second “Fashion Show” which previewed, appropriately, at Lord & Taylor Department Store on Fifth Avenue in New York and moved on to Marlborough Gallery in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
In 2002 Rivers was as busy as ever with a major retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and a show of early works at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in the spring. With another “Fashion Show” scheduled at Marlborough Gallery in the fall, Rivers continued working on fashion paintings up until three months before his death in August 2002. Obituaries appeared in various newspapers and periodicals worldwide, with national coverage that included among others, “Time Magazine” and the front page of “The New York Times,” where they honored a formerly predicted front-page coverage of his death.