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Larry Rivers: An artist whose work fused the lively mark-making of Abstract Expressionism with commercial images of advertising



Painter, sculptor, poet, filmmaker, actor and musician Larry Rivers was an established figure in the New York School (an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City), who gained acclaim for creating large paintings merging abstract and narrative elements. Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, was born in the Bronx, New York on this day, 17th August, 1923. He started his creative career as a saxophonist in 1940, and upon his professional debut, changed his name to Larry Rivers. The now-Larry joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 during the second world war but retired on medical grounds in 1943. Larry’s first solo art exhibition was held at Jane Street Gallery in New York in 1949.


Rivers\’s visual artwork often incorporates text. With his ‘Vocabulary Lesson’ portrait series, he melded a post-Abstract Expressionist figurative style with whimsical labels and messages, as if undermining the earnest credo that the abstract painting should exist in a space beyond language and rational interpretation. Larry Rivers was bisexual, and sexuality was an important aspect of his life and work. In works such as ‘O\’Hara Nude with Boots’ and ‘Double Portrait of Berdie’, we find him smashing sexual taboos — whether that meant going against the prohibition on gay love in post-war America or on painting one’s ageing ex-mother-in-law naked. Clearly, some of Rivers\’s anti-moralizing crusades have aged better than others, but his work in some instances raises significant questions about the need for culture and the state to interpose on the artist\’s right to freedom of expression. His unexhibited video series ‘Growing’, documenting the development of his teenage daughters\’ bodies, has been called child pornography by one of its subjects, and is one example where Rivers\’s taboo-busting seems to have overstepped the mark.


Larry Rivers has been considered by many art scholars and artists — including the late Pop Art great Andy Warhol — to be the \’Godfather\’ of PopArt, because he was one of the first artists to merge the non-figurative style of Abstract Expressionism with figurative motifs and icons, many of them plucked from pop culture. Rivers\’s canvases include symbols and logos borrowed from sources such as Camel Cigarette packets, Confederate flags, and Dutch Masters Cigars – which feature a reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous 1662 painting, ‘The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild’ — an instance of a copy of a commercial copy of a masterpiece.. Rivers himself though, was dismissive of reflecting on mass culture in his work; in his obituary, the late artist was quoted as saying: \”I have a bad arm, and am not interested in the art of holding up mirrors.\”

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