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Larry Rivers

By John Russell

Larry Rivers was the first American artist I ever met, and I have never forgotten it. It was in 1964. Larry at the time was artist-in-residence at the Slade School, in central London, and everyone there prized his company. I had not yet been to New York, and I had no idea how genuine New Yorkers talked, or even what they talked about. But then, one day, Larry Rivers agreed to go and talk to the students at the Ealing School of Art. Ealing was not normally a part of London that people went to in search of a treat. Nor did Larry Rivers as yet have a household name in England. This was nothing against him. In 1964 American painters in general had zero coverage in England. But those who had met Larry Rivers at the Slade told me not to miss his talk on any account. “He’s irresistible,” they said. “There’s never been anyone like him.”

On the way to hear him speak, I remembered that after the end of World War II the Ealing Studios had produced some wonderfully light-hearted and inventive movies. Among much else, they made the reputation of Alec Guinness, who was unforgettable in Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he played eight separate roles and died in every one of them. One could say that “the Ealing comedies,” as they were called, spoke up for a post-war Britain that was still in the doldrums. In what was still rather a dreary time for Britain, they were original, mischievous, light-in-hand, and carefree. To this day, movie buffs break into smiles at the mention of them. I remember that even in the late 1960s Peter Sellers could cause a sensation when he walked into a New York bistro. So the name of Ealing, back then, meant the movies, and the movies in question meant laughter.

But for me, and for every afterwards, Ealing was to be the place where I heard Larry Rivers talk. I knew nothing about the Ealing School of Art, but somebody had clearly the right idea. Every seat was filled for Larry Rivers. Some of the students may have hoped that he would come on as a touring evangelist who could transform their careers with the right word to put in the right ear. Others were fired by a curiosity in which personal advancement played no role. General knowledge was what they were after. And by the end of the afternoon, Larry Rivers had fired them up, one and all. What he did, fundamentally, was to make them aware of their submerged selves. He was not there to “teach,” but to set them free.

He never said “Be like me.” But he knew what it was like to be a student who was longing to get his act together but didn’t quite know how. He never said “Do this, do that.” But he touched on the taboo subjects that haunt young people, everywhere, in every generation. He didn’t come on strong, but he came on straight. Nor did he ever hesitate. In dealing with the classic problems of young manhood, world-wide, he would say, in effect, “Make up your mind what you most want to do, and then… just do it.” He also gave, more than once, some very sound advice about matters not normally discussed in academic lecture-hall. This was not an everyday lecture. It was a conversation.

I had been told already that Larry Rivers was a champion verbalizer. He could put anything into words and carry the company with him. He could also talk his way out of absolutely anything, if he felt like it. And he had a vastly capacious memory. Without that, he could hardly have won $32,000 on a TV show called “The $64,000 question” in 1957.

He was also a famous conversational duettist, in partnership with poets like Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery, who stood high in that context. I can testify that the most dazzling duet of its kind that Rosamond and I ever witnessed was when, after dinner twenty and some years ago, Larry Rivers and Kenneth Koch began to talk about living French writers whom they knew, or might have known, or just felt strongly about. This was sustained and idiomatic mischief of a very high order.

It was also characteristic of Larry the painter that when he looked for inspiration he found it at the top, and not on some undemanding middle ground. In 1952, for instance, when he was 29, he took off from Courbet’s monumental “Burial at Ornans” in the Louvre. Courbet had painted a whole society in miniature and had something telling to say about everyone in it. Larry was moved by Courbet’s evident involvement with, and concern for, people who were known to him as neighbors. As to his own “The Burial”, Larry was quite specific. “This was actually my grandmother’s burial,” he said later, “just as the Burial at Ornans came from Courbet’s own experience”.

Larry also excelled from early on as autobiographer. Lovers present and past, close friends, his own children and—in a famous instance—one of his ex-mothers-in-law were perennial subjects.

Younger women were invaluable to him in the 1960s when he began to paint female nudes with certain parts of the body identified here and there in big letters. He was always alert to fashions in dress and undress, for both men and women. In all such matters, he functioned both as a historian and a story-teller.

He also liked to defy our expectations. Where another painter would pay homage to Cézanne by working from an original Cézanne, Rivers worked from a French postage stamp that had been issued in honor of Cézanne. It was not—and I quote—“like” Cézanne. But Larry’s “Cézanne Stamp” of 1963 was more like Cézanne than any direct imitation. And he did it not by filling the canvas, but by leaving a lot out.

He also enjoyed working with material that many another painter would have disdained. An example is his use of the famous box of “Dutch Masters” cigars, on which Rembrandt’s “Syndics” figures as the leitmotif. This was a gross appropriation. But Larry knew how to make something of the original win out. And when he set himself to prove it, a certain poetry resulted.

In much of his work, there was an element of high-spirited teasing that could never be found in mainline abstract painting. Larry in life could be a glorious tease who could “set the table in a roar” when he thought that the situation called for it. He could also do it in his work. He could never, for instance, side with those who thought that abstract painting was what mattered most. And in 1981 he began a series of paintings under the general title of “The Continuing Interest in Abstract Art.” Many of them were big—76 by 80 inches—and they were of immediate interest. But the point of them, one and all, was that there was really no “continuing interest in abstract art.” Abstract art was nowhere to be seen, and everyone in sight was using traditional methods for traditional ends. This was true of collectors as it was of those who were making art. Larry meanwhile went on his own way, as he always did.

As you all know, it is by a sad coincidence that both Larry Rivers and Kenneth Koch are being commemorated this afternoon. I should like to think that somewhere in another world they are still talking and laughing together, and still planning the duets for painting and poetry that we so much enjoyed.

Read by Jane Freilicher at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 8, 2003.

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