Lot 429: Larry Rivers
Signed and dated "Rivers 59" center right; signed, dated, and inscribed in pencil "Valentine Painting/Rivers '59" verso
Canvas: 52" x 50"; Frame: 52.75" x 51"
LAMA would like to thank the Larry Rivers Foundation for their assistance in cataloguing this work
Provenance: Private Collection, Wyoming (acquired c mid-1960s)
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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.
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.
Harrison, Helen A. Larry Rivers: Performing for the Family. New York: Guild Hall Museum of East Hampton, 1983. Print.
Hunter, Sam. Rivers. New York: Abrams, 1972. Print.
Rivers, Larry. Drawings and Digressions. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1979. Print.
Rosenzweig, Phyllis. Larry Rivers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. Print.