Radical Representation: The Art of Larry Rivers

May 12, 2016

It is widely believed that the painter, sculptor, and printmaker Larry Rivers (1923–2002) changed the course of American art in the 1950s and ’60s, when pure abstraction was the dominant force in art. At a time during which figuration was considered dead, Rivers insisted that figurative art and portraiture remained relevant—even radical. The singular style he developed combined the force and gesture of Abstract Expressionism with perfectly rendered, representational imagery. His preferred subject matter—everyday objects like playing cards, cigarette packs, and foreign currency—together with his signature cool, ironic detachment, have caused some to regard Rivers as the forerunner of Pop Art.

May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 37, Larry Rivers, Dutch Masters White Plains Box (1981)
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

The engines which drove Rivers’s career were restless curiosity and an eagerness to experiment. He was a leading figure in the New York School, a loose-knit group of painters, writers, dancers, and musicians who formed the core of the East Coast avant-garde in the 1950s and ’60s. In addition to making art, Rivers played jazz saxophone, designed stage sets and costumes, made documentary films, and acted. He and the poet Frank O’Hara—his longtime friend and sometime lover—would collaborate on art that combined text and imagery. For his Make Believe Ballroom series, Rivers employed a novel printing technique to create pieces with raised, textured surfaces, which occupy a middle ground between painting and sculpture.

Lot 38, Larry Rivers, Make Believe Ballroom (1989)
Lot 38, Larry Rivers, Make Believe Ballroom (1989)
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Drawing on sources ranging from Courbet and Manet to Matisse, a major theme in Rivers’s work is the relocating of iconic, established imagery in contemporary art. One of his early successes was his 1953 work Washington Crossing the Delaware, a detached dissection of the famed Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painting. In 1963, Rivers painted the first of his Dutch Masters works, a theme he explored several times over. Wryly, these works reference not any Dutch master proper, but a brand of cigars whose packaging co-opts Rembrandt’s The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild to commercial ends. In so doing, these paintings are classic Rivers, who surely relished the absurd reincarnation of a Rembrandt masterpiece as promotional fodder in twentieth century consumer culture.

Rose, Barbara, and Jacquelyn Days Serwer. Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist. Boston: Little, Brown and in Association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2002. Print.

Lot Information:

Lot 37
Larry Rivers
Dutch Masters White Plains Box
Oil on shaped canvas support
Signed lower right “Larry Rivers”
LAMA would like to thank the Larry Rivers Studio for their assistance in cataloguing this work
76.75″ x 60″ x 19″

Provenance: Private Collection, Beverly Hills, California (acquired directly from the artist, 1982); Private Collection, Los Angeles, California
(acquired directly from the above)

Estimate: $50,000–70,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 38
Larry Rivers
Make Believe Ballroom
Acrylic, oil, photolithograph on canvas, cast resin fiber, and wood
#94 of 105
Published and fabricated by Mixografia, Los Angeles
Signed with edition center right edge
LAMA would like to thank the Larry Rivers Studio for their assistance in cataloguing this work
36.75″ x 35″ x 3.5″

Estimate: $5,000–7,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

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