Larry Rivers 1923 —2002

Biography

LARRY RIVERS 1923 – 2002


“One of the best artists in the history of American art”-

Barbara Rose, Art Historian ArtForum Nov 2002


Rivers created an important bridge between the Abstract Expressionists and the Pop artists.

Michael Kimmelman, NY Times Art Critic August 16, 2002


Like many of the people who became significant players in Pop art, Rivers invested in the creation of surfaces. I mean this both in the visual and theoretical sense. The repainted Dutch Masters labels, Camel cigarette packs, and mock-informational works that Rivers produced during the 50s through the 70s betray an investment in the idea of superficiality.

David Apatoff, Art Critic



LARRY RIVERS  (American 1923 - 2002)


Larry Rivers helped to change the course of American art in the 1950s and '60s by doing the what was most radical, bringing the figure back to art.   A post-Abstract Expressionist, Larry Rivers was one of the first artists to rebel against the pure abstraction and inject recognizable figurative subjects into his painting. He established a middle ground between abstraction and realism and combined blurred images with precise lines.  Rivers is considered one of America's most important postwar artists.  Sam Hunter wrote, " Larry Rivers is one of the most original, exuberant and irrepressible members of the New York School.  In a career that spanned five decades, he generated a series of sharply memorable images, turning iconographic cliches into contemporary art.  Whether creating paintings from iconographic art such as Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953)  of a popular American History painting by Emanuel Leutze in 1850, or his Dutch Masters (1966) a play on Rembrandt's famous work or his play on the Henry Matisse La Danse, or from iconographic advertising such as the Dreyfus Lion, Rivers turned established art into POP ART, always done with tongue in cheek.

Noted art historian Barbara Rose, wrote that Rivers was; "Heralded as the progenitor of Pop art, which he certainly was, in my view he was also the last great history painter."  Rose continued, "The only subject Larry could not bring himself to satirize was the Holocaust, which inspired some of his most moving later works." 

Rivers is considered by many scholars to be the "Godfather" and "Grand Father" of Pop art.  Pop artists Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol,  created art out of ephemeral materials, using topical events in the life of everyday America.  Rivers, quintessential rebel in all things, was among the first to rebel against gesture-field, abstract expressionist, painting in order to develop his  own painterly visions.  In 1953, Jackson Pollock himself abandoned the gestural pouring technique with his ambition to define the cutting edge of American art.  The new generation of artists, the Larry River's generation, needed to develop their own painterly visions.  For Rivers and Robert Rauschenberg and other painters who turned away from Abstract Expressionism, a return to figurative representation in "gestural realism" provided the means to a new artistic vocabulary.  More than a generational imperative to originality, gestural realism connoted a shift in the artists' conception of the social role of art.   Gestural realism engaged society on the more topical level of public myth.  It was a return to history painting of a kind, with the emphasis now placed on questioning or undermining national myths rather than on constructing them.  Larry Rivers was a true son of the new counter culture. 

Larry Rivers was born in the Bronx in 1923 to Ukrainian Jewish parents; he was named Yitzak Loiza Grossberg. Rivers was a second generation New York School artist; though unlike most of his contemporaries he avoided abstraction instead preferring narrative paintings. He had studied music at the Julliard School, but at the suggestion of Jane Freilicher, became a painter (always ready to 'jam' with his saxophone).  From 1947 to 1948, he studied with Hans Hofmann and William Baziotes and was very much a part of the leading-edge New York School scene.   In 1949 he had his first solo show at the Jane Street Gallery, New York's first artist's co-op.   

The subjects of River's figurative paintings were family, history, politics, religion and sex. His work done in oils often included the use of stencils, cutouts, and blank canvas and image reversals. He often painted family members including his mother in law, his sons and his ex-wife. Rivers favored historical subjects such as "History of Matzoh: The Story of the Jews (1984-85)," "History of the Russian Revolution (1965)" and often painted parodies including his "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Rivers enjoyed controversial subjects and shocking the public. "Lapman Loves It" (1966) is a nine foot electrified assemblage complete with strategically located light bulbs. "French Vocabulary Lesson (1961-62)" is a nude with body parts labeled in French.  In 1969 Rivers created an outrageous POP commission for the Smith Haven Mall, Lake Grove NY,  40 FEET OF FASHION.  The imagery was swimmers, lips and legs.  Along with the artworks it incorporated lights and sound.  It was a spectacular POP display using paintings and common everyday materials that astounded everyday America.  In 1985 the developer decided to demolish and rebuild the mall.  He asked Larry if he could donate the work to a museum.   Larry demanded that the work first be conserved.  The developer, was unwilling to undertake so costly a conservation project. Larry Rivers oversaw the destruction of the huge work, saving only a few of its elements, the legs and one or two of the swimmers.

Rivers was perhaps the earliest 'fine artist' to use photography as an integral part of his work.   Two important works resulted from his early use of the medium - which 30 years later has become an accepted, integral part of the painters 'tool kit'.  Appropriation, historically an ever present artistic exploration, became more specifically related to the original subject with Rivers actual incorporation of an original photographic image into his work.  Between 1968 -1972,  Rivers created two major works based on the enlargement of a single photograph, which he altered to suit his composition.  "Swimmer" and "Divers".  Both were conceived of to be included in "40 Feet of Fashion" an installation at the Smith Haven Mall developed on a remote 102 acre potato field, mid-Long Island, in Lake Grove, NY.  Commissioned by Leonard Holzer, at the suggestion of his wife, 'Baby-Jane' Holzer of Andy Warhol's experimental films and Esquire editor Tom Wolfe's 1964 "Girl of the Year".  Rivers was one of several artists including Alexander Calder and Jim Dine, asked to provide works for the mall.  The Rivers '40 Feet of Fashion' installation featured a slide projection unit, women in bathing suits posed to dive and swim, a huge set of lips and a 20' pair of legs.  The installation used only one of these two photographically derived works, "Swimmer'.  The second, Divers 1968-1972 completed after '40 Feet of Fashion' was installed, was exhibited in several museum shows thereafter, beginning with Larry Rivers Retrospektive 1954-1979 "Bilder und Skulpturen" Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover Germany.   The Smith Haven mall opened in 1969.  The mammoth Larry Rivers work was the 'welcoming' piece in the mall, anchored high above the floor, between the two anchor stores, Macy's and Abraham & Strauss.  There it remained until the installation was dismantled in 1985. 

Divvers, combined 7 layers of one single photograph.  Of the seven layers, one was a halftone screen of the figure, the others were cut-outs in the shape of that figure, in various materials all set as if to spin forward in the diving position.   The work has a significant exhibition history and is illustrated (full page) in Sam Hunters monograph of Rivers.  Now, 40 years after its creation it must be viewed as a precurser of what has exploded most recently in art - a precursor of photography being fully accepted as a medium of 'fine art'.  Perhaps Rivers was the first 'fine artist' to use photography as a work of art.  "Divers" is based entirely on a photograph - each  of the seven layers of  "Diver' uses a different material - from vinyl to card stock to plastic bubble wrap.  The synthesis of materials reflects as much on era's culture as the popular image itself.  Each of the other 6 layers is a reflection of the photograph in a different medium.  "Swimmer " as well is based on the one single photograph, the same as used in "Divers".  It incorporates canvas and vinyl and exterior paint over wood. 

Rivers was above all an intellectual thirsty for knowledge and hungry for visual stimulation.     He was a voracious reader and an inveterate museum goer.  Other famous series of Rivers were stimulated by his time, place and the art that he saw.  In 1992, a republication of the Audubon folios stimulated Larry to produce a prodigious body of life size works of Birds of North America, following the original Audubon watercolors.  Several noteable life size works and a substantial body of drawings were created in three dimension by Rivers; The Great Blue Heron, Plumed Partridge, Double Crested Cormmorant, Black Necked Stilt and American Avocet.  The following year, the landmark Henri Matisse exhibition opened at MOMA.  The exhibition inspired Rivers as it did almost every artist and he created number of major works stimulated by the Matisse, La Danse; Blue Line Dance and a machete for an as yet unrealized sculpture, La Danse.

As an author, Rivers  published "Drawings and Digressions" with Carol Brightman in 1979.  In 1992 he published "What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography",  with Arnold Weinstein.

There are several major publications and an excellent DVD of interviews on the works of Larry Rivers.  Outstanding among them are:  Sam Hunter.  Larry Rivers,  Abrams 1969 (republished several times with additions); Irving Sandler, Irving Sandler, ''The New York School: the painters & sculptors of the fifties,'' (New York; London : Harper and Row, 1978; Carol Brightman, Drawings and Digressions, Potter 1979;  and Helen A. Harrison, Larry Rivers (1984).   The DVD, LARRY RIVERS: AN AMERICAN MASTER, is from www.ArtNewYork.org by Paul Tschinkel and contains 6 interviews, 3 with Larry Rivers and 1 each by Sam Hunter and Helen Harrison.

The many Museums which have collected the works of Larry Rivers include; Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Art Institute of Chicago; J B Speed Museum; Butler Institute, Youngstown OH; Cheekwood, Nashville TN; Collection La Stampa Turin Italy; Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC;  Dallas Museum of Art; Detroit Art Institute;  Flint Institute of Arts; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Kresge Art Museum; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden;  Lowe Art Museum; Menil Foundation, Houston TX; Minneapolis Museum of Arts;  Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Caracas Venezuela; Museum of Art Fort Wayne;  Museum of Art, Baltimore MD; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design; Museum of Fine Arts-Montana; Museum of Modern Art;  National Gallery of ArtNeuberger Museum of Art; Parrish Art Museum; Phoenix Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA); Smithsonian American Art Museum; Snite Museum of Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; The Arkansas Arts Center; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; The Columbus Museum-Georgia; The Grace Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Tate Gallery, London;  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts;  Whitney Museum of American Art; Williams College Museum of Art

An important source for modern and contemporary American & European Art in East Hampton, New York & worldwide, Vered Gallery's spectacular wide-ranging inventory consists of unique paintings, drawings, large & small scale sculpture, monotypes, prints and photographs  by Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Fernando Botero, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Chagall, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, David Hockney, Winslow Homer, Wolf Kahn, Jeff Koons, Fernand Leger, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Thomas Moran, Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Charles Sheeler, Bert Stern, Alfred Stieglitz, Andy Warhol, Carleton E Watkins, Tom Wesselmann and Andrew Wyeth.

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View synoptic biography below.

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SYNOPTIC BIOGRAPHY   -  LARRY RIVERS  (American 1923 - 2002)

1923

Born August 17, 1923 in the Bronx, New York, to Samuel and Sonya Grossberg.



1948

Enrolled at New York University as an art education major.

1949

First one‑man exhibition.

1950

First trip to Europe, spending eight months in Paris writing poetry.  On returning to New York began painting full time, living with mother‑in‑law Bertha "Berdie" Burger and sons Joseph and Steven.

1951

Graduated B.A. in Art Education from New York University.  First of eleven annual solo exhibitions (except 1955) at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, organized by representative John Bernard Myers.  Began sculpting in plaster.

1952

Designed sets for the play "Try! Try!" by Frank O'Hara, produced for The Artists' Theater by John Bernard Myers.

1953

Washington Crossing the Delaware. Moved to Southampton, Long Island.

1954

First exhibition of sculpture. First painting acquisition (The Burial, by the Gloria Vanderbilt Foundation).

1955

First major museum acquisition (Washington Crossing the Delaware, by the Museum of Modern Art, New York).  Won third prize in the Corcoran Gallery national painting competition for Self‑Figure.

1956

One of twelve artists representing America at the IV Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

1957

Mother‑in‑law Berdie Burger dies at age 66.  Began sculpting in welded metal.  Began collaborating with Frank O'Hara on Stone, a series of lithographs of illuminated poetry.  Won $32,000 on the TV show "The $64,000 Question".

1958

Spent a month in Paris playing around town in several jazz bands.

1959

Having gone to Cedar Tavern for many years, comes away with a poem wrapped in a Cedar Bar Menu.  Instead of illustrating the poem (his original intention), painted Cedar Bar Menu 1. Me II  purchased for Seagrams Building.

1960

Began collaboration with Kenneth Koch on painting‑poems.

1961

Married Clarice Price.  Painted in a studio in Impasse Ronsin where he met, became friends and collaborated with Jean Tinguely.

1962

The first Rivers‑Tinguely collaboration, The Friendship of America and France, was shown at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.  London's Tate Gallery purchases Parts of the Face: French Vocabulary Lesson.

1963

Completed the commissioned First New York Film Festival Billboard.

1964

Traveled to Europe and North Africa. Informal artist‑in‑residence at the Slade School of Fine Arts, London, from January to June. Daughter, Gwynne, born.

1965

First comprehensive retrospective exhibition of 170 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints toured five U.S. museums. Prepared The History of The Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky for inclusion in the final exhibition at the Jewish Museum.

1966

Designed sets and costumes for Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, with the New York Philharmonic under Lukas Foss. Death of intimate friend and collaborator Frank O'Hara.  Daughter, Emma, born.  Winter of 1966‑67 spent in London.

1967

Separated from Clarice Price. Traveled to Central Africa to film the television documentary Africa and I with Pierre Gaisseau. Participated in the Museum of Modern Art's memorial exhibition for the late poet and curator Frank O'Hara.

1968

Returned to Africa with Gaisseau to complete documentary film.  Narrowly escaped execution as a suspected mercenary.  Completed giant two‑part Boston Massacre murals for the New England Merchants National Bank of Boston.

1969

Completed Forty Feet of Fashion for the Smithhaven Mall.  Began working with spray cans.

1970

Completed Some American History for the De Menil Foundation.  In a natural progression, working with spray cans led to airbrush painting and the use of acrylics. Began working with videotape.

1971

Traveled through Oregon and California.

1972

Returned to California and taped video segments for an operatic treatment of Kenneth Koch's poem, The Artist, which was performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

1973

Traveled to Sweden for group show at the Swedish Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm, where his work Living at the Movies was exhibited. Began series of paintings based on The Coloring Book of Japan.

1974

Completed the Japanese series, shown at Marlborough Gallery.

1975

Traveled to Africa, where he made a short videotape with Peter Beard.

1976

Traveled to Russia at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Artists, where he lectured in several cities on contemporary American art. Made videotapes along the way.

1977

Began using color carbon. Started a series of works based on Rembrandt's Polish Rider, of which Rainbow Rembrandt was purchased by the Hirshhorn Museum.

1978

Began the Golden Oldies series, turning his characteristic historical approach to his own works of the 50s and 60s. Part of the series shown at ACA Galleries.

1979

Completed Golden Oldies series. Golden Oldies closed out the past and now "...who knows," said Rivers. "I'm concentrating on, as Edmund Wilson said, 'touching the superlative' in my own work."

1980

Retrospective exhibition: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas.

1980‑81

Traveling retrospective exhibition: Kestner‑Gesellschaft, Hanover Kunstverein, Munich Kunsthalle, Tubingen Stattliche Kunsthalle, Berlin

1981

Begins living with artist Daria Deshuk.

1982

The Continuing Interest in Abstract Art series shown at F.I.A.C (Grand Palais, Paris), Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd., and Marlborough Gallery (New York).

1983

Thirty‑year survey at Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York and Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, FL.

1984

The mural Philadelphia Now and Then inaugurated at J.C. Penney, Philadelphia.

1984‑85

History of Matzah (The Story of Jews) exhibited at The Jewish Museum, New York.

1985

Son Sambo Deshuk Rivers born.

1986

Completed a computer art project for the BBC, London, to be seen on U.S. television. Prepared for an October one‑man exhibition of new relief paintings at Marlborough Gallery, New York. Interest in the motif of dancers for the Make Believe Ballroom series, based originally on Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Rita Hayworth, continues with the portrayals of other dancers, including modern dancers like Merce Cunningham. Produced a commissioned cover for The New York Times Magazine, Erasing the Past, using concentration camp imagery. Research for this led to an interest in expressing thoughts and ideas about the Holocaust and the writings of Primo Levi, resulting in a set of large portraits of Levi.

1987

Early in the year traveled to the Dominican Republic in the hope of "working long hours and quietly" on Umber Blues. Reviews Ron Sukenik's book Down & In for The New York Times.  Asked by the Philadelphia Historical Society to make a print celebrating the Bicentennial of the Constitution. Contributes a special eight‑page project to Art Forum (No. XXVI, No. 3, November 1987) 100 Avant‑Garde Plays by Kenneth Koch.  A concomitant interest in Duchamp and the modernist avant‑garde leads to the catalogue's cover design and poster for the Art at the Armory show based on Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.

1988

Begins a series of large versions of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, with the title 75 Years Later. Spoleto Festival U.S.A. exhibition at the Gibbes Art Gallery. Italian Television interviews Rivers regarding his painting of the Italian writer Primo Levi for its program What's Happening in America and was broadcasted on Italian National television.

1989

Begins new series of relief's depicting Webster Cigar boxes, seated figures, and Charlie Chaplin. Expresses a continued interest in modernist works by placing Chaplin and other themes against the background of paintings by Leger.

1990

Traveling retrospective Larry Rivers: Public and Private organized by the Butler Institute of American Art and The American Federation of Arts. Will tour 6 cities 1990‑1992.

1991

Continues a series of works based on works by Matisse and other early twentieth‑century artists. A retrospective of prints and multiples made between 1957 and 1991 begins a nine‑city tour to end in 1992. 

1992

Creates works based on depictions of family friends and objects in the studio. Nassau County Museum of Art retrospective of paintings, drawings, and prints is scheduled for August through November 1992.  Harper Collins, New York, Published Larry Rivers' Autobiography, What did I do? He is also the subject of several scholarly monographs and videos, and a doctoral dissertation.

1993

Has several works included in the exhibition Copier/Créer de Turner á Picasso, 300 Oeuvres inspirées par les Maîtres du Louvre, organized by the Louvre in Paris. Also had works included in 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. One of his three dimensional works was selected for the exhibition Slittamenti, a segment of the 1993 Venice Biennale. A solo exhibition entitled Art and the Artist marked a thirty-year association with Marlborough Gallery in New York. The exhibition traveled to Marlborough in Madrid, Spain.

1994

A show at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York entitled Art After Art featured paintings by Larry Rivers.

1995

Was a central figure in the major exhibition entitled Bop, Beat, and Beyond at Australia's Museum of New South Wales. This show explored the connections between visual artists, musicians and writers of the beat period. Also featured in the comprehensive exhibition Beat Culture and the New America (1950-65) at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

1996

Begins transitioning from art and artist themed works to fashion as a subject.

1997

The Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Florida mounted a retrospective of Rivers' works from 1980-1997. Marlborough Gallery in New York featured his solo exhibition, Recent Works, and Ulysses Gallery in Vienna, Austria featured his early works on paper.

1998

Focuses his efforts mainly between two themes, Art and the Artist works and Fashion. Begins drawings in anticipation of a work about The History of Hollywood.

1999

Interest in fashion as a subject culminates in his first Fashion Show, a 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 is a montage painted across four 8' x 10' panels painted with Hollywood's memorable moments, and seventy-five additional drawings.

2001

Marlborough presented the second Fashion Show which previewed, appropriately, at Lord & Taylor Department Store on fashionable Fifth Avenue in New York and moved on to Marlborough Gallery in Monte Carlo.

2002




Died

2002

A major retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist May 18 through July 22, 2002.  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.


August 14, 2002 died in Southampton NY


2010       Vered Gallery - Larry Rivers Paintings and Works on Paper.

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