Larry Rivers After Crossing His Delaware
by Barbara Probst Solomon
The bumpy road for Larry Rivers' reputation has included early fame, adulation, scandal, scorn, neglect, and above all, lack of comprehension. His lifelong innate bookishness is barely noticed. Yet recently in "Refurbished Reputation for a Nervy Painter," Holland Cotter in The New York Times, breaking with the usual assessments of his work, firmly demands that we take a second look, particularly at his later painting. Peter Schjeldahl in his New Yorker review on MOMA'S huge retrospective on Abstract Expressionism starts with a description of the tongue-in-cheek "Stones," the volley in lithographs between Larry and the poet Frank O'Hara, and lands midway in his piece with admiration of Larry's "Washington Crossing the Delaware." The painting hangs by itself in lonely splendor toward the exit of the exhibit, the only truly insistent figurative painting in the show. It contains all the complicated things for which Larry became known -- history, a pastiche on history, a serious feel for narration. With "Washington" a door suddenly swings open: Larry's rebellious solo flight from the Abstract Expressionists -- some call it pre-pop -- is the first real bridge taking us back (or forward), however artists define it, into the figurative. Sotto voce "Washington" is also about Larry's lifelong allegiance to the literary -- his tastes running toward Primo Levi, the Russians plus Joseph Roth.
Some of the uneven reception of his work is due to Larry's wacky delivery of his persona. He later regretted that in his memoir What Did I Do? written with Arnold Weinstein he focused so heavily on his "bad boy" exploits (mistakenly assuming that his readers would automatically get his seriousness); later in my small literary Journal The Reading Room he wrote "Aesthetics On My Mind." Still, he makes his points with his usual sexy irreverence:
"The aesthetics of modernism, which we artists took as an absolute religion governing the present and indeed all of the future, now strikes me as I reassess it, as merely having been a style. One day, while I was an art student at Hans Hofmann's art school there was a nude female elevated on a stand. She was quite beautiful, I must say, seated in front of our class of about thirty students. I hadn't as yet, had too much experience silently sitting in a room with a female I didn't know who had her legs wide open. In my recently adopted aesthetic the issue wasn't so much what you saw, but the use that you as an artist made of what you saw. So you were not supposed to make notice of that fact that you as a male were looking at a vagina. You were now equipped with an aesthetic that governed the use you could put to what you saw. The use could be dividing the rectangle in front of you, the marks you made on the surface, and the space that you could create. I was carried away by this aesthetic that demanded that I put the vagina to a use other than its usual one. It made me feel I was different from most people - that there were other values that counted. So, what ended up on my drawing board, which we rendered on paper in charcoal, were three peculiar rectangles. The rectangles represented Hofmann's success as a modern artist and teacher in keeping me pointed in the direction of becoming a modern artist. But it took about a week of looking at the model -- so beautiful I thought - to take in consideration the other things I felt about her. I knew what Hofmann meant, I know what we all meant and how we were supposed to think, but I was also aware that there was a whole other thing going on. I'm bringing up this anecdote to give an idea of the aesthetic milieu that we existed in and to show how I was actually affected by the woman. There was a split in my feelings. I didn't rush to complete my rectangles as I was interested in keeping her there...."
Larry concludes, reaching for Chekhov: "I now go from this to that [in my art] and why be ashamed of it? I am talking about the mundane, the everyday Chekhovian stuff of life. Which we pushed away in our early days because we were looking at this blank screen called progress."
It's hard to reconstruct the total hold abstract art had in America after World War II when domination in the art world moved from Europe to the United States. That is, New York. Nothing like that happened in the literary world. Bellow, Mailer, Carson McCullers, Salinger, Robert Lowell, Roth, Updike, the Beats, the lot -- you name it -- weren't into abstract experimentation, and the French nouveau roman never made it across the Atlantic. Larry could be witty about lines and planes not being what he saw when a naked woman model posed legs apart, but there were other salient factors in his rebellion. Larry was one of the best draftsmen of his generation, and he would need to use that talent. Also - and this was not part of his public persona; it was sort of Larry's semi-secret -- the way playing the saxophone and having a band was the opposite of secret -- he was very intellectual, very literary, and one of the most brainy artists of his generation, but there was always the feeling in the art world that the more intellectual the artist, the less talented the painter. No matter. Larry put writers on an almost impossible pedestal.
In a series of works Larry did in the early 1980s -- "The Continued Interest in Abstract Art" (more to the point, his fight with it) he slyly places his battle with modernism directly in the canvass. Many of Larry's later figurative nudes have a double view: the nude body plus indistinct rectangles and squares à la Hans Hofmann floating above the bodies. One criticism of Larry's work is that he crams too much into a painting; so to speak, he doesn't stay "on message". As a writer who since my teenaged days has had one foot in the Spanish world, that is, Spain, whose art, architecture and writing, has always included multiple highways and byways -- an innate baroqueness -- I am used to this muchness. And since when did Cervantes stay on message?
Larry's first safety net in his initial lone rebellion against the cool Abstractionists was his connection to his poet pals who hung out together in the 1950s. The Tibor De Nagy Gallery's 60th Anniversary show "Painters and Poets" (open until March 5th), underscores how necessary these connections were for him and the other artists. The mix of artists and poets include Frank O'Hara, Larry, Alfred Leslie, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Jane Freilicher, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. Though the show a tad too insistently nails these artists to one period, albeit, a magical one, the drum beat of distant glamour works. Photographs and films by Rudy Burckhardt and letters and postcards between Larry and Frank O'Hara, plus Larry's jottings in his notebooks, exude an intime, casual quality that has terrific allure.
I was not part of that world. I first met Larry, sort of, in the early 1960s during the shooting of the cinema verité "The Anatomy of Cindy Fink"; the film later won first prize in its category in the 1963 Venice Biennale. The "happening" was filmed in Al Leslie's old studio some time before it burned down in a fire. I say "sort of" because though I was aware of Larry - how could I not be? -- I felt too intimidated by the offbeat atmosphere to go up to him and introduce myself. Actually, I was merely the "sort of" writer of the project. I say "sort of" because Cindy Fink went through different phases. It started out as a 1961 piece of mine, "The Person Alone" published by Dissent. I was definitely not a Downtown person. Though American, I had got my writing start in Paris after I graduated high school (bypassing college) in the early 1950s writing for a Spanish underground magazine Peninsula. The magazine was the brain child of exiled Spanish students, political dissidents, including my boyfriend Paco Benet, who smuggled the magazine across the Pyrenees and into Madrid prisons, where some of their friends were moldering. We produced Peninsula dirt cheap, in a dusty printing shop in down-and-out Belleville. We knew about the place through the aging Spanish anarchists who went there to print their leaflets. Our dreams were focused on our future, but what we saw day after day were the anarchists adrift in the city. Paco said to me: "You can tell your grandchildren that you saw the anarchists die in Paris." They did die. And I did tell my grandchildren.
Eventually, back in New York and at Columbia, in a Martha Foley writing class in The School of General Studies, I wrote my first published novel, The Beat of Life. Belleville, and what it represented to me, pasted forever inside my brain (a previous novel about my days in France had gone nowhere), was not in the novel. Perhaps its very absence gave the novel its submerged heat. The Beat of Life (referring to childbirth) was about a group of Columbia students who were coolly anti-everything, including the previous generation of Columbia students, who had started the Beat Generation. The novel created a splash in 1960 partly because James Baldwin discovered it -- it seemed to have intrigued him -- and hailed it; partially because the students in the novel manipulate a psychiatrist into providing a girl with a psychiatric legal abortion with tragic results, and abortions weren't openly discussed in fiction then. The editors of Dissent, always on the lookout for new young writers with a political bent, welcomed me in, and I wrote "The Person Alone" for their magazine. It was about New York's anomie: its lostness and confusion (including my own) in the time of the big exodus to the suburbs.
A film producer suggested the piece might make a good basis for a "happening". One transformation led to another -- it was a rocky road, and the project we had originally agreed upon changed hands. Still, I got my screen credit, though the producers grumpily left out my middle name and obliterated reference to the film's distant beginnings at Dissent. Spontaneity, not bourgeois socialism, was the "look" the producers were aiming for.
Larry, in the huge crowd of artists, dancers and musicians answering the call to show up at Al Leslie's studio, I noticed, was clearly not spontaneous. He had participated in other films and had a thought-through attitude toward what he wanted to do. He worked very hard, as he always did, to simulate the presumed spontaneity of the event. He came prepared -- he hung his just-finished painting "Dutch Masters I" on the studio wall and he brought his sax. Ricky Leacock's amazing fast direction gave "The Anatomy of Cindy Fink" its stylish life - it had the jumpy cutting of Goddard's "Breathless", whose jumpy cutting came by way of Jean Vigo's Àpropos de Nice -- but Larry gave it its narrative focus. ("Cindy Fink" came out slightly before "Blowout".) Larry and Al Leslie kept a flirtatious soul-searching dialogue going with Cindy Fink (everyone used their real names), a young woman who had come into the city from out of town, who in a pre-Annie Hall rambling way is blown away by Manhattan and artists and performers gathered in Al Leslie's studio. Larry keeps playing his sax, ignoring the pre-scripted dance routine led by an ex- queen of burlesque -- she is instructing the would-be dancers as they follow her around the studio -- on the right burlesque moves. Louise Lasser wearing a kooky outfit and hat (she later married Woody Allen -- I wondered whether he saw the film) -- was one of them.
The secrets of artists and writers -- what they conceal -- have always intrigued me, my sense being that the big secrets frequently turn out to be about humble matters, having little to do with shock. Indeed, in the privacy of my mind, I've always wondered, had I not had such miserable lumpy thighs and worried about my asthma, would I have been part of the downtown scene? Would I have joined the freewheeling dancers at the happening? Would I ever have partaken in drugs? In the 1960s I did neither, but was this due to some innate virtue on my part, or to the degree to which our bodies shape a good part of our destiny?
Fast forward thirty years to a cold rainy night at Columbia University, where finally Larry and I actually met. My daughters Carla and Maria are grown women, I have grandchildren. Larry has children of all ages and grandchildren. Gloria and Lionel Abel had invited me to go with them to the annual Lionel Trilling lecture: Professor Yerushalami was giving the main speech -- "Facing Evil: the Shoah and Primo Levi". Larry had been commissioned by the French Government to paint Claude Lanzmann, and in the same way he had done so many years before at the filming of "The Anatomy of Cindy Fink," he was leaving nothing to chance. He was totally glued to Yerushalami's talk on the Shoah. When the lecture was over Larry ambled over to us, Lionel Abel introduced me, and the next morning Larry telephoned me. By this time he was far more at ease with his flight from Abstract Expressionism -- he was making extraordinary works of birds, never mind that there was no apparent audience for them.
Larry and I became good friends. In fact, he dedicated his memoir to me. Okay, let me define the question on the reader's mind. We mattered to each other, and, Larry being Larry, we had our moments of super closeness. But I would still define what we had as a close friendship -- I didn't conflate love, friendship and desire (after all, I grew up in a flexible French/Spanish milieu) with the permanent acquisition of real estate. Larry ultimately belonged to Larry. But he was perfectly capable of telephoning me at 5:30 in the morning in order to ask where in Remembrance of Things Past Proust wrote on jealousy. And Joseph Roth's novels and pieces (Roth was a cousin of my father's) gave Larry a tremendous high - he went nuts with the unfinished wild energy and smarts in "Strawberries" and the end of World War One confusions on the Eastern Front in "Hotel Savoy." He would phone me -- did I know of more of Roth's writing translated into English? Larry's calls wanting to know of more works by Roth would generally come at around six in the morning. Fortunately we were both types who were up and running by then. As Larry would say "our fax machines are in communication." (This was just before email took over.) And we often talked about intimate things. Shame. Larry didn't like his bent nose, and, as I've said, I didn't like my miserable thighs.
If one can ignore for a moment Larry's public persona, it is important to note that he was one of the few American artists of his generation who dealt head-on with the Holocaust. Indeed, in his portraits of Primo Levi, Felix Nussbaum, the Jewish artist murdered in Auschwitz (Larry painted Nussbaum's face merged with his own), and Claude Lanzmann, he demands that we viewers also focus head-on with it. When he first showed me in his studio his portrait of Lanzmann, he asked me if I thought it wrong that he had included a group of teenagers that he imagined might have been on a transport train. One is of a girl in the railway car with long hair, the way actresses like Linda Darnell wore it, and there is a touch of color. She is wearing dark red lipstick - the others on the train are done in black and white 1940s movie style.
What Larry caught is devastating. When the Jews were shoved into the transport cars the adolescent girls and boys were at the age when you harbor dreams and yearnings of a glamorous future. One girl might have boarded the transport with still enough hope to have painted her mouth red, Larry's way of reminding us that she had no future.
Yet, if you don't get the artist's true volley, then you are lost - you understand nada. Larry often is described as proto-pop, or the bridge to pop, but pop art came up behind him; it clearly wasn't his obsession. Nor, as a matter of fact, was his target the bourgeoisie. His true arrows were entwined with our history and aimed at abstract art. His true fury was aimed at Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, at what he considered to be their phoniness, and the power abstraction had over everything else.
He was obsessed with what the artist sees. We made one trip to Madrid together; he spent endless time in the Prado looking at just one painting: Velázquez's Las Meninas. He examined the way Velázquez painted the folds of the dresses, the laces, and said no one could do that now. But most of all his eyes went back and forth, figuring out what Velázquez meant by painting himself painting the princesses. After the Prado, Larry wanted to go across the street to the Ritz. But the Ritz then was still starchy formal and Larry was wearing a Mideastern beanie that looked like a yarmulke, the wrong pink shirt that on him was the right pink shirt and no tie, and they wouldn't let us in. Larry liked to test people, including me. I was correspondent for El Pais. (The dissident Spanish writers I had grown up with were the cultural and political leaders of the new Spain, and I became part of the new Spain with them.) Larry sat down near the entrance - I was, so to speak, on home ground, in my tierra. In a low voice I said to the concierge, making sure he knew I was from El Pais: "You have a great American artist here. He has come to pay the Prado homage." I kept repeating the word homage. "What would America think if you turned him away?" (As if America knew or cared about such things!) They consulted. They worried. Then they sat us in the bar technically reserved for children.
In the few remarks I later made a year after Larry's death at his unveiling, I recalled: there he sat, drinking his good tea in the children's bar, while the Velázquez voyaged to a secret solo place pasted behind his eyes, as he gazed outward and in. It wasn't Hemingway's afternoon at the Ritz; it was Larry Rivers' determined afternoon at the Ritz. When Larry was dying, his friends, one by one, trouped into his living room in Southampton, which had been converted into a hospital room with nurses and medical paraphernalia. I knew references to death and deep emotions would scare him and I didn't go there.
"Larry," I said, "about Duchamp..." He knew I was referring to Duchamp's secret, that the sole work of his last sixteen years was his obsessive involvement with the body of his great love, the realistic Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins which he had tried to reproduce, while concealing what he was working on from the public. He called the work Etant Donnés. In the end even Duchamp could not totally banish the body, the figurative.
"Larry," I repeated. "About Duchamp -- you won."
Larry grinned. Sort of impishly. He had got it. There was a pause. He leaned back in his hospital bed, looked first at the nurse and then at me.
His grin widened: "I just took a piss." Then he closed his eyes and dozed off.