September 1, 2007

The Dance of Larry Rivers

While cataloguing my drawings, I came across a sketch I made of Larry Rivers dancing on a page of gesture studies of a robed model. In the New York of autumn, 1988, Larry Rivers taught the graduate painting class at Parsons School of Design. An icon of American painting, Larry Rivers struck an impressive figure. He was all angles - a chiseled aquiline face with an incredible beak of a nose. As an artist he was the consummate maverick, defying all the social and political mores of the twentieth century art world. I found a kindred spirit in this man, as he appropriated images from both western and eastern art history. His art was an amalgam of styles and influences as a result. Most contemporary art historians explain his reinterpretations of everything from Dutch masters to Japanese woodcuts as a deliberate attempt to challenge the status quo of artist as rugged individualist with impenetrable boundaries of identity. In my conversation with Larry Rivers, however, I detected a more visceral motive for his appropriation of the past. There was a yearning not to merely RE-present the past but to possess it. I've felt this same yearning when making drawings from the art of past masters. The slow process of rendering folds the touch of the artist into one's soul. The experience becomes a dance with the past.
On a sunny autumn afternoon in Larry River's classroom, while the model was on break, she put on a short robe then twisted around vigorously. I drew her as quickly as I could. But then Larry Rivers spontaneously broke into a funny dance himself which I also made a quick sketch of.
Despite his eagerness and his superstar status, most of the graduate students under his tutelage that autumn were not terribly impressed. Whether it was a mismatch of personalities, a negative reaction to his commercialism, or just a naive unreadiness for the raw reality of the New York art world I cannot say. But the lack of enthusiasm on the part of his students caused Larry Rivers great consternation, which he periodically vented upon someone or something. One day, he decided to rail against a teapot in a graduate student's still life set up. The teapot, yes, it was the teapot that was the cause of the ill wind in the studio! It was an outrage - a relic of the nineteenth century that must be obliterated! So Larry Rivers removed the offending teapot from JD's innocent still life set up and gave him a lecture on painting things that are only pertinent to modern life and not archaic objects that no one ever even uses anymore like a TEAPOT! I piped up to say that I use one and was quickly dismissed as being possibly the only person in the United States that does. And with that Larry Rivers left the studio to buy JD objects that he decided would be more apropos for 1988 American life. He came back from his shopping trip some time later and made a still life arrangement for JD consisting of a box of tampax and a jar of emolient. Now JD, being the urbane young man that he was, never did paint Larry River's still life. But I wondered if I would have painted it had I been challenged to do so. After coming across my little drawing of Mr. River's dance, I have decided to make three small paintings in homage to this landmark painte. After all, I think of Larry Rivers every now and then, mostly in the mornings when I'm drinking tea out of a favorite teapot from my collection. Even though I'm in the 21st century.
Larry Rivers passed away in 2002 and that year there was a retrospective of his work at the Corcoran gallery. Click on to the link to get a view.


harriett said...

You made me wish I had known this man! Entertaining post!

Ebb Tide said...

You're lucky to know an artist like Larry. Good post.