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WHIMSY Mariah Karris, a student, viewing Larry Rivers's "Art and the Artist: Jean Hélion and the Dummies" (1992) at an exhibition in Stony Broo

AN ARTIST WITH A MUSICIAN'S EAR FOR DUETS 'Larry Rivers: Collaborations and Appropriations' Is at Stony Brook University

Published: October 26, 2012

"Larry Rivers: Collaborations and Appropriations" is at the University Art Gallery, Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, through Dec. 8. Information: or (631) 632-7240.

AN artist who started out as a jazz musician, Larry Rivers, who died in 2002 at age 78, often teamed up with and borrowed from others in his artwork. Those interchanges, sometimes whimsical, are explored in "Larry Rivers: Collaborations and Appropriations," an exhibition at the University Art Gallery at Stony Brook University.

Helen A. Harrison, the curator of the exhibition, attributed Rivers's approach, at least in part, to his musical background. He continued to play his saxophone in bands, she said, even as he became a prolific and well-known artist who spent much of his time in Southampton.

Among the artwork on display is "Stones," a series of lithographs that Rivers made in the late 1950s with the poet Frank O'Hara. They alternated adding images and words, each commenting on or sometimes altering what the other had done, Rivers explained in an article excerpted in a wall text. In her essay in the catalog, Ms. Harrison wrote that they interacted "much as jazz soloists take cues and improvise."
Also in the exhibition are 10 large-scale, three-dimensional oil paintings that Rivers based on works of the past. "Modernist Times" (1988), for example, combines a famous image of Charlie Chaplin entangled in a giant machine from his 1936 film "Modern Times" with abstract mechanical forms drawn by the French artist Fernand Léger in 1918. It is one of the works that Ms. Harrison, who is also a Stony Brook faculty member and the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center (owned by Stony Brook) in East Hampton, classifies as "appropriations."

In his painting, Rivers set up a dialogue between Léger, who celebrated the mechanical era, and Chaplin, who was alarmed by it, said Ms. Harrison, who knew Rivers and wrote a monograph about him in 1984. "He was an intellectual, but he played that down," she said. "Because he was self-deprecating, he was not taken as seriously as he should have been."

Many of his three-dimensional paintings, she said, present complicated homages to van Gogh, Max Ernst, Matisse and other artists. "He reinterpreted them," she said.
But in his life, she added, "He created the persona of the bad boy, the wise guy, the cutup." He dabbled with heroin, Ms. Harrison said, and his romantic partners included two wives, several women he lived with and O'Hara. "He was omnisexual," Ms. Harrison said. "It all fed into his art."

Many of the works in the show come from Rivers's late career. In that period, he was often deemed derivative and formulaic by critics, but Ms. Harrison said, "That's not my feeling." In the catalog she praised his "omnivorous appetite for all things visual" throughout his life.
Rivers (who was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg) also acted. Two experimental films in which he had leading roles play continuously on a monitor in a far corner of the large gallery.

"A Day in the Life of a Cleaning Woman" was shot in 1953 by Rudy Burckhardt at the Southampton home of the artist Fairfield Porter. "Mounting Tension," a 1950 Burckhardt film set in Manhattan, also stars the poet John Ashbery and the artist Jane Freilicher. Ms. Freilicher, Ms. Harrison said, introduced Rivers to painting in 1945, while her husband and Rivers were bandmates. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, "solitary self-expression" was in fashion among artists, Ms. Harrison said, making Rivers, with his borrowings, a renegade and a precursor of Pop Art.

Among his collaborations are several with the poet Kenneth Koch, including a seven-foot-long mixed-media work called "In Bed: Collaboration With Kenneth Koch" that they created in 1982 for an exhibition at Guild Hall in East Hampton. It features handwritten notes and poetry by Koch accompanied by related images by Rivers of various subjects in bed - men, women, dogs, dolls, sheep, basketballs. (Rivers's collaborations continue, in a way, with a large piece of paper on which visitors may scribble or sketch their own reactions to the exhibition.)

In 1958 Rivers was the subject of a Life magazine spread, reproduced in the catalog, after he won as an art expert on the television quiz show "The $64,000 Challenge." His $32,000 prize, Ms. Harrison said, helped Rivers buy a house in Southampton, where he had previously visited or rented.
The house was sold soon after Rivers's death, David Joel, executive director of the Larry Rivers Foundation, in Sag Harbor, said in a telephone conversation. Many of the works in the exhibition are on loan from the foundation and from the Rivers estate.

Mr. Joel, who said he worked with Rivers for 15 or 16 years, estimated that the artist created 3,500 to 4,000 pieces. "Larry could paint really quickly," Mr. Joel said. Only about 600 works remain with the estate or the foundation. "He sold a tremendous amount of work in his life," said Mr. Joel, who assisted Rivers in creating some of them. The three-dimensional ones, he said, were first painted by Rivers on canvas, then cut into pieces and traced onto foam board. "Then we would cut the foam board and build it up," he said, often sculpturing it to fit the shapes in the painting. "Then we would assemble it, like a puzzle," glue it and paint the sides of the foam board to match the painting.
"Peruvian Street Art," a work from 1992, required many small sculptured pieces to achieve the puffy look of an elaborately decorated pillow, Mr. Joel said. "Not losing a piece was very important," he added.
Rhonda Cooper, the director of the University Art Gallery, said she asked Ms. Harrison to organize an exhibition on Rivers partly because he worked in so many different forms. "It's important for students to learn that," she said.



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