Larry Rivers is an artist difficult to contextualize over his 50-year contribution in the arts as a musician, painter, sculptor, poet, actor, filmmaker, author and teacher. Even Andy Warhol revealed Rivers as an influence, stating “Larry’s painting style was unique – it wasn’t Abstract Expressionism and it wasn’t Pop, it fell into the period in between. But his personality was very Pop.” Indeed, the artist’s personality may have overshadowed his own artistic accomplishments, because of his interest in an ongoing dialogue with art and ideas, bridged across many mediums.
Larry Rivers was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx, New York on August 17, 1923. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants Samuel and Sonya Grossberg. In 1940, Rivers began his career as a professional jazz saxophonist, playing in various bands throughout New York City. His name was forever changed when a nightclub comedian introduced his group as “Larry Rivers and The Mudcats”. In 1944, he studied music theory and composition at the Julliard School of Music, where he befriended Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
The following year, fellow musician Jack Freilicher, and his wife, painter Jane Freilicher, introduced Rivers to Cubism and the visual arts. From 1947-48, he studied painting with Hans Hofmann at his school. With funding from the GI bill, Rivers later enrolled in the Fine Arts program at New York University, where he worked with William Baziotes and received a BA in art education in 1951.
Rivers soon developed a career that focused on painting, but included music, stage design, acting, filmmaking and writing poetry and prose. He was a facile draftsman whose artwork formed a connection between the Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 50s and the Pop Art of the 1960s, as noted by Warhol. He was fascinated by great works of art and among his most important paintings were his personal renditions of some of the world’s classics: for example, Leutze’s masterpiece painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware and Manet’s Olympia, which Rivers titled provocatively, I Like Olympia in Blackface. In his figurative work, his subjects include family, history, politics and sex. He often portrayed his own family members in them. His oil paintings employed the use of stencils, cutouts, airbrushes, printmaking, assemblage, blank canvas and image reversals.
In 1965, Rivers had his first comprehensive retrospective, including 170 works comprised of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, which toured five American museums. His massive multi-media work, The History of The Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky, was included at the final venue at the Jewish Museum in New York. It was later acquired by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C.
In 1950, Rivers met writer, poet and curator Frank O’Hara and they cultivated a uniquely creative friendship that produced numerous collaborations in painting, poetry, prints, and set design for O’Hara’s play “Try! Try!”. In the late 1960s, Rivers was also involved with set design for Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and a collaboration with the French filmmaker Pierre Gaisseau, for which he traveled extensively throughout Europe and North Africa to film a documentary. In 1970, Larry Rivers had a solo exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago and the first of many solo exhibitions at Marlborough Gallery, New York. He continued to teach, give lecture series and exhibit his work worldwide. There were three additional retrospective exhibitions during his lifetime, organized by the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Venezuela (1980), the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, New York (1983) and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. (2002).
In August 14, 2002, Rivers died of liver cancer in his home and studio in Southampton, New York.
Today, the work of Larry Rivers is represented in many important American and international museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, the De Menil Foundation in Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery, Hirshhorn Museum, and National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Museo de Abstracta in Spain, the Tate Gallery in London, as well as in New York at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
[Source: The Larry Rivers Foundation, accessed May 8, 2019. www.larryriversfoundation.org/bio.html]