Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Larry Rivers

October 8, 2013

Larry Rivers is one of the last affordable Pop artists left. Recently, Rivers’ works have become more desirable, and thus have achieved higher prices on the market. I believe, eventually, Rivers will join his friends and peers – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Kooning – who are among the most coveted artists of the 20th century. Valentine Painting from 1959 has never been exhibited or widely published. Once major Rivers retrospectives are organized, this work will likely be sought after by scholars and institutions. In my opinion, this is one of the finest long-term investments LAMA has ever had the honor to represent.

– Peter Loughrey, Director of Modern & Contemporary Fine Art

Valentine Painting (1959), Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers

One of the first artists to combine the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism with the everyday objects of Pop Art, Larry Rivers (1923-2002) developed a daringly idiosyncratic artistic style that allowed him to explore political, sexual, and historical themes. Born in the Bronx, Rivers briefly served in the US Army during World War II, and upon his return he established a successful career as a jazz saxophonist in New York clubs. He was introduced to art through the painter Jane Freilicher in the summer of 1945, and shortly thereafter enrolled in the Hans Hoffman School to study painting. Perhaps due to his jazz background, he was initially drawn to Abstract Expressionism’s emotional immediacy, but upon viewing the Pierre Bonnard exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, Rivers began incorporating figurative subjects in his works. While his first one-man show featured paintings heavily influenced by Bonnard, contemporaries such as Willem de Kooning saw a talented newcomer unafraid to incorporate abstraction. In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art acquired his most ambitious work to date, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), a “controversial reinterpretation of a banal historical subject.”

Beginning in 1953, Rivers spent a productive four years in Southampton, Long Island with his two sons and mother-in-law Berdie. During this time he developed a figurative style characterized by a marriage of “drawing and color in a fluent harmony,” resulting in a renewed understanding of the human form that would last throughout his career. Paintings from this period – including a nude study of his elderly mother-in-law, Double Portrait of Berdie (1955) – earned him both approbation and criticism. By 1957, the year Berdie passed away, Rivers’ paintings were becoming personal allegories, often featuring his entire family in multiple poses amidst rich spots of color and blank canvas. He was evolving as a figurative painter, yet his tendency toward abstraction reentered his artistic vocabulary.

Valentine Painting (1959) labels, Larry Rivers

1958-59 was a short-lived period when Rivers returned to Abstract Expressionism. He also returned to his beloved literary and artistic circle, which included the poets Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. “The strokes got laid down like bursts of talk, sometimes simultaneously with them,” recalls Ashbery, who described Rivers’ paintings from this era as “very much an extension of his daily life,” which included his lover and muse, Maxine Groffsky, who at the time was in control of the New York literary circle. Like de Kooning’s women, she exuded confidence and decadence. Valentine Painting (1959) features Groffsky – who Rivers nicknamed “Miss New Jersey” – as an obfuscated blur sitting in his Second Avenue loft. At the center of the chaotic brush strokes resides the focal point – a shimmering white bracelet rendered in metallic paint, enclosed within thin black lines forming a heart. A little over a year later, their intense four-year relationship abruptly ended, and Groffsky became the Paris editor of the Paris Review, a position she held for many years. A similar series of paintings called Miss New Jersey were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1961. These were some of the final works – essential to his transition – before Rivers began incorporating non-traditional materials and commercial subject matter to create the three-dimensional proto-Pop constructions of the next decade.

Lot Information:

Lot 429
Larry Rivers
Valentine Painting
Oil and charcoal on canvas
Signed and dated “Rivers 59” center right; signed, dated, and inscribed in pencil “Valentine Painting/Rivers ’59” verso
LAMA would like to thank the Larry Rivers Foundation for their assistance in cataloguing this work
Canvas: 52″ x 50″; Frame: 52.75″ x 51″
Provenance: Private Collection, Wyoming (acquired c. mid-1960s)
Estimate: $200,000 – 300,000

Leave a Reply