The Hirshhorn has brought out its Larry Rivers collection. Most of the paintings and collages date from 1953, when the jazz saxophonist-turned-artist revised the cliche of "Washington Crossing the Delaware," to 1965, when he took on the entire history of the Russian Revolution. Passing through a phase of imitation, Rivers depicted, with controlled irony, Jacques-Louis David' "Napoleon in His Study," which is in the National Gallery of Art, and called his version "The Greatest Homosexual," which is in the Hirshhorn show. In "I Like Ingres, Too," he re-painted Ingres's "Mademoiselle Riviere." He painted and sculpted his mother-in-law as God made her. He copied a copy of Cezanne from a postage stamp. The usual medium was a combination of oil and charcoal, or pencil and an occasional strip of cellophane tape.
At first glance, the oil paintings outlined and underlaid with charcoal seem to signal unfinished work, the novelist's notes. But the causal lines are calculated lines, the result both elusive and compelling.
It was in the milieu of Abstract Expressionism that he first took up painting in the early '50s -- and he depicted real things. As his friend poet Frank O'Hara said, "Into this scene 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." t
The colors are true-to-life, too: the lurid hue of a small "Red Still Life" in oil and charcoal, the sparkling yellow morning of summer in Southampton, "Molly and Breakfast," a girlfriend of sorts, painted three times over a breakfast that had been left out for five days.
Contrasting in black-and-white are sketches, and pages from "Stones," a portfolio of lithographs that limn poems by O'Hara, including one for mother-in-law Berdie, after her death: How lucky we are that you're in so many museums so we can go and look and be out of traffic as if we were talking in the dirty light of loss . . .
There are a few works -- posters and sketches -- from a later time, but only one that really seems out of place -- a huge drawing done in 1980, "Chinese Information -- Travel," which copies and combines two eighth-century Chinese scroll paintings. It's an interesting subject, but the wallful of line drawings of riders and horses seems overly poised, flat and motionless when compared with Rivers' earlier works.
There is movement in the oil and charcoal motif, where Rivers doesn't want it all to be perfectly tight and giftwrapped, dosen't want to do all the work for you, has left a bit of ribbon dangling, and seems to be saying, go ahead, finish it yourself. It's the observer's effort to do this that makes this show engrossing.
LARRY RIVERS -- At the Hirshhorn through Sept. 20.