While throughout his career Larry Rivers seemed to constantly be at odds with whatever orthodoxy was dominant in the art world, the current exhibition of his works at Guild Hall in East Hampton illustrates an artist who seemed instead to be constantly absorbing and reconfiguring accepted dogma rather than simply waging an inexorable battle with it.
Titled “Larry Rivers: Major Early Works” and featuring some of his most important paintings from the 1950’s and 1960’s, the exhibit underscores the measure of stylistic amalgamation that was a hallmark of his output as he strove to blur the boundaries between academically structured figuration, abstract expressionism, and his later use of pop art images.
Within this framework and as the work evolved, however, River’s never sought to offer a relaxed blend of components instead seeking a degree of tension in which his influences all came to the fore and seemed to exist in an uneasy alliance of line, color, surface texture, and imagery. The works embody the painter Francis Bacon observation that “a picture should be a re-creation of an event rather than an illustration of an object; but there is no tension in the picture unless there is a struggle with the object.”
This facet is particularly apparent in the large nude portraits included in the Guild Hall show and which profoundly accentuate River’s attempt in the early 1950’s to highlight academically derived painterly inspiration while emphasizing in the figuration a severe and brusquely emotional sort of portraiture. Balancing Philip Pearlstein’s later uncompromising dedication to picturing the human body absent any sense of idealization, this gains in impact from the expressively psychological aspects of his subjects, which Lucien Freud later described as “not having the look of the sitter, being them.”
While significant in his portraits of the poet John O’Hara and his Rivers’ first wife Augusta, this is even more notable in the celebrated works featuring his mother-in-law. Beginning with “Portrait of Berdie, Number II” (oil on canvas, 1953) which illustrates River’s influences from deKooning and the abstract expressionists, continuing through a later series of drawings that reflects River’s accomplished use of line, the series reaches an apogee in “Double Portrait of Berdie” (oil on canvas, 1955).
Seemingly juxtaposing a haphazard approach to anatomy and composition, the work conjures a strange and compelling narrative which is emphasized by the artist’s attentiveness to detail in much of the peripheral components in the work.
This contrast of painterly impulse and structural coherence is further accentuated by an entertainingly arresting use of perspective within the work, as if part of the image was painted from eye-level while other sections seem to imply the scene as if viewed from atop a step ladder and recalls Georges Braque’s statement that “perspective is a ghastly mistake which has taken four centuries to redress.”
This impulse to a balance between academic figuration and abstraction becomes more pronounced in River’s works in the Guild Hall exhibit in the paintings from the 1960’s and is especially apparent in “The Last Civil War Veteran” (oil on canvas, 1961). Exemplifying the artist’s developing interest in historical themes that reflect a frankly quixotic view of times past with a healthy nod to both nostalgia and idealism, the work draws attention to the artist’s developing use of both color and line as overlapping components in creating imagery and narrative.
Highlighted by a use of color and expressive painterly techniques that emphasize a measure of spontaneity even as they firmly establish the planar dimensions within the work, this is further emphasized by the figuration which, simply expressed in slashes of line, establishes an air of elegiac simplicity that is minimal in its configuration yet powerful in its emotional impact.
What is perhaps most surprising about this period of River’s works is his developing departure from the orthodoxy’s of both pop arts ironic detachment and the evolving intellectual distance of minimalism’s dogmatic view of abstraction and which is profoundly evidenced in his monumental “History of the Russian Revolution” (mixed media construction, 1965).
Measuring 14 feet tall by 32 feet long and assembled as one huge, chronologically arranged jigsaw puzzle tracing the birth and evolution of the rise of Russian bolshevism in the early twentieth century, the work is majestic and dramatic, absent any latent sense of idealism yet nevertheless redolent of a dedication to historical romanticism.
The exhibition at Guild Hall in East Hampton titled “Larry Rivers: Major Early Works” continues through October 19.