LARRY RIVERS has always been a kind of visual diarist, forging an ongoing narrative of the world by translating the familiar subjects of history and myth, both public and private, into personal statement -- whether painting his own vision of "Washington Crossing the Delaware," rendering Napoleon as "The Greatest Homosexual," or treating the family photograph in "The Elimination of Nostalgia." How fitting then that he should have put together this book as a narrative-on-the-narrative, a commentary on the life and art of Larry Rivers from the one who knows them -- it -- best. Drawn from interviews with art historian Carol Brightman, Drawings and Digressions, including some 200 illustrations of Rivers' drawings, is as lively, entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking as Rivers himself.
There are some no doubt -- "pure" painters like Ad Reinhardt, who reduced art to the paint itself, and black paint at that -- who will say that what matters is only the art, what's on the canvas; the artist's life is not important in studying his art. It is an old argument. But Rivers has always gone his own way, since he first exploded on the New York art scene in the late '40s and early '50s. As his friend the poet Frank O'Hara once said: "Into the art scene of the '50s Larry came rather like a demented telephone, Nobody knew whether they wanted it in the library, the kitchen or the toilet, but it was electric."
Born in the Bronx, Rivers entered the dizzying atmosphere of Greenwich Village as a jazz musician, studied compostion at Juilliard, met painters like Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine and eventually found himself studying painting with Hans Hofmann in New York and Provincetown. It was a heady time to be a young artist in America (or, more precisely, in New York), that time when the established and traditional canons of art were just beginning to fall before the slashing lines and impulsive brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists and the influential pen of critics like Clement Greenberg, whose 1946 essay, "Avant-garde and Kitsch," became the manifesto of Abstract Expressionism. "Content," wrote Greenberg, "is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself." America's first generation of Famous Artists was just being born.
Into this world came Larry Rivers, drawn to art by a romance with the Impressionists, particularly Bonnard, seized by "a fantastic desire to draw realistically," to be "an artist in the classic scene," in part as a way of testing himselft against history: "I wanted to identify with the history of art. I wanted to have some of the abilities of the best to really prove to myself that there was something of the artist in me." The problem, of course, was how to do this at a time in which the figure itself -- let alone such conventions of studio art as a nude, the great man, history-in-costume -- had all but disappeared from American art. Rivers set out to find his own idiosyncratic way -- and found several, beginning with the breakthrough work in 1953, "Washington Crossing the Delaware," his reinterpretation of the 19th-century painting by Emanuel Leutze, an attempt "to do something no one in the New York art world could doubt was disgusting, dead and absurb. So what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliche."
The rest, as they say, is history. And Rivers has put it all down, both his own history and that of the world in which he's been living and working for close to 40 years. The book is full of lots of fascinating stuff, fascinating gossip about the artists and writers in Rivers' life, sex, drugs, the early years when the New York School of Art hung out at the Cedar Bar and was as movable a feast as Paris in the '20s.
But while that's all undeniably interesting, and while the illustrations in this book show Rivers to be as fine a draughtsman as American art has produced, there's something else that strikes me as more important about Drawings and Digressions. It's as keen an insight into the mind of an artist as one is likely to find, not only in a theoretical sense but also in an emotional one. All art comes out of struggle -- with oneself, with history, with one's time. That's what gives art emotional power. Rivers has endured the vicissitudes of the art world precisely because he has never given up that struggle, has kept on pushing himself, goading himself really, relentlessly questioning himself, his motives, his art. I suspect that the interviews from which this book are drawn were a process of self-discovery for Rivers as he tries to answer the question that he asks over and over: "What has my life in art been about?" Nearing 60, he worries about what fame and money might have done to him and to his work and wonder about "where I am going to be replenished from. Myself constantly? I'm boring. It's hard to think that it could all come from yourself."
Well, it does and it doesn't. The self exists in the world after all. "I feel that the relationship between life and art is nothing to be ashamed of," Rivers said in an Art News interview not long ago. "It's my life that matters and my art is part of that. I mean, Rothko . . . he saw color. But did he see life? Well, I have to put my life in my work because that's me. That's what I'm about." CAPTION: Picture 1, Larry Rivers; Copyright (c) By Nancy Crampton; Picture 2, "Social Patterns (Together)," By Larry Rivers