Sunday, May 1st, 2005

Larry Rivers: Paintings and Drawings, 1951-2001

40 West 57 Street

Marlborough Chelsea
211 West 19 Street

Through June 4, 2005

Larry Rivers Fashion Seated 2001 oil on canvas, 50 x 41 inches Courtesy Marlborough Galleries
Larry Rivers, Fashion Seated 2001 oil on canvas, 50 x 41 inches Courtesy Marlborough Galleries

In 1937 Ivor Winters prefaced his analysis of free verse with an essay entitled “The Morality of Poetry.” He could apply the concept of morality to art without irony, confident of being understood by his audience. Winters was not referring to moralism but to what might be called the virtue of craft: the discovery of values which the poet-any serious artist- finds by grappling with the difficulties of his medium.

In the brief span of a single lifetime, public grasp of the communal function of trained, sharpened sensibilities has eroded nearly to oblivion. Navigating in the fine dust of disconnected particles, we can barely glimpse purpose in art beyond that of entertainment or self-expression. On view at both Marlborough galleries, uptown and down, are the mechanisms of that erosion at work for half a century in the art of Larry Rivers (1923-2002).

Rivers was born Yitzak Loiza Grossberg to Ukrainian immigrants in the Bronx. At seventeen, he began a career as a jazz saxophonist, changing his name after a nightclub emcee introduced his combo as “Larry Rivers and His Mudcats.” He played gigs around New York and studied musical theory briefly at Julliard until beginning to paint in 1945. On tour that year with a jazz band in Maine, he met Jane Freilicher, wife of the band’s pianist. Painting appeared a more opportune vehicle for creative ambition than jazz, dominated as it was by great black musicians. Back in New York, he and Freilicher drew from the model at the studio of Nell Blaine who encouraged them to study with Hans Hofmann. Rivers’ first show at the Jane Street cooperative in 1949 earned praise from Clement Greenberg and the artist was launched.

Through the1950s, into the early ’60s, he created some wonderful things but few are here. I miss “Double Portrait of Berdie” (1955), a resonant synthesis of figuration and modernist intentions and his sweeping hybrid structure “The History of the Russian Revolution” (1965). Also absent is “The Greatest Homosexual” (1964), a parody of Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon in His Study” but with a delectable surface that holds its own.

Larry Rivers Portrait of Brigitte Mernahan 1956  oil on board, 16-1/2 x 21-3/4 inches  Courtesy Marlborough Galleries
Larry Rivers, Portrait of Brigitte Mernahan 1956 oil on board, 16-1/2 x 21-3/4 inches Courtesy Marlborough Galleries

On view uptown are several sensitive portrait drawings and delicately painted heads from the ’50s, suggesting the emotional power Rivers soon relinquished to the artifice of Camp. Veils of pure color are whispered onto fine-grained linen, supporting and balancing passages of elegant drawing. Lovely and distinctive, paintings like “Head of a Woman” (1957) leave you lonely for what he could have produced if he had resisted the tongue-in-cheek detachment of Rauschenberg, Warhol and company. But Rivers never kicked the habit of burlesque.

He was a skilled performer, a great mimic and fine draughtsman who abandoned the problems of painting early, gravitating toward the random I-do-this-I-do-that of Beat sensibility. “Portrait of Frank O’Hara” (1953), keeps the flavor of his abstract expressionist origins. But by the mid-1950s, Pop Art had begun its advance against seriousness and qualitative distinctions. Jackson Pollock had already used Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace as a urinal; Rauschenberg was combining stuffed goats with his paintings and undrawing de Kooning (“Erased de Kooning” 1953). The moment belonged to bad boys. It wasn’t long before play hardened into pose and Rivers substituted waggish constructions and anecdotal interest, often with sexual overtones, for the language of painting.

The sculpted and painted foamboard relief “Modernist Times: Assembly Line” (1989-90), a cartoonish Charlie Chaplin amid the machine-like forms of Leger, is good fun; so is every foamboard piece here. But the shelf life of sight gags is brief. Looking at lampoons of Balthus, Matisse and Gericault you wonder: Where does the fun end and the damage begin? Rivers’ gibes are ultimately as transient as window decoration-a reminder that Warhol’s paintings debuted in Bonwit Teller’s windows in the early 1960s.

Cleverness is a thin reed in visual art; it looses currency fast. This show looks as dated as Teddy boy Edwardiana, Beatles-style chukka boots or Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Beat dreams of the free poetic life. By the time Mary Hopkins bumped “Hey Jude” down the music charts with “Those Were the Days”, Rivers was already copying himself. “Dutch Masters Silver” (1969) is the third rendition of a cigar box motif begun in 1963. How many times can Rivers bleed the same logo-Dutch Master, Camels, Webster-before life drains out?

Marlborough Chelsea displays his most recent work, a last hurrah for commercial glamor. Rivers ended where he began: in an ethos of fashion-obsession that celebrated style over substance. The downtown paintings recycle photos from high-end fashion mags, a brash ensemble strangely reminiscent of the 1960s. Twiggy resurrects in the the concave droop of the bony, cropped-haired model of “Fashion Seated” (2001). Mary Quant’s micro-mini skirt is back; only the tone of the models is different. Here is Carnaby Street on the skids with the gartered waif of “Thigh High Fishnets” (2000) or the black stockinged pickup of “In the Artist’s Car” (1995). In Mary Quant’s memorable phrasing: “Good taste is death. Vulgarity is life.”

Larry Rivers fastened on showmanship and attitude. Beyond the earlier works, few are more enduring than a low-budget Warhol movie or the Velvet Underground. He spent high talent on the carelessness of his era, one foreign to the ground of lasting achievement. Works of great communicative scale and meaning are not products of a cultural attitude epitomized by Rivers’ close friend, collaborator, and aesthetic apologist, the poet Frank O’Hara: “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to; if they don’t need poetry, bully for them.” And if they don’t need painting either, no big deal.