Rivers’ “Jewish Themes” at Temple Adas in Sag Harbor

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Larry Rivers, Four Seasons: Fall in the Forest of Birkenau, 1990. Images courtesy of the Estate of Larry Rivers ©Estate of Larry Rivers/Licensed by VAGA, New York

By Michelle Trauring

David Joel puts it simply: Larry Rivers is most closely tied to Jewish culture through DNA — “without meaning to sound obnoxious,” he adds.

But it’s more complex than that, he explains.

Rivers was an analytical thinker. He was endlessly curious, an avid reader and a lover of music, particularly jazz. He had a voracious appetite for life, and Borscht, and a quick sense of humor.

“These inclinations or tastes — or, in some instances, as Larry might claim, lack of taste — are really genetic,” says Joel, executive director of the Larry Rivers Foundation. “I guess the question becomes, are those qualities that I describe specifically unique to Jewish culture? Some of them are, I think. I mean, every culture is shaped by its history.”

It is a history marked by constant threat, according to Joel, who will discuss the link between Judaism and his longtime friend during “An Insider’s View: Perspectives on the Art and Artist of Larry Rivers, From Inside the Studio” on Thursday at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor.

“Subsequently, Jews have had to leave homelands to avoid imminent doom — you know, that whole idea of the Diaspora,” he says. “The urgency of that kind of upheaval shapes aspects of a culture in very unique ways. When you need to leave fast for parts unknown, there isn’t much time or room for schlepping heavy items, or even a little tchotchke.

“So people take the things that don’t weigh them down but instead lift them up, things that can’t be easily separated from their bodies, things they can’t drop, or lose, or easily have stolen, but are substantial enough to remind them of home,” he continues. “And typically, those things that are easiest to carry are the things that are inherent, part of one’s DNA.”

Larry Rivers, Four Seasons: Fall in the Forest of Birkenau, 1990.

This created a culture of learning, reading and studying, Joel says, one of music, art and asking questions, “if for nothing other than the self-reflection on why one must leave a home, followed by the shear need to survive in new environments.”

“For Larry, the idea of inquiry, which is very connected to Jewish culture and religion, was at the core of the artwork that he made,” Joel said. “Larry’s art often asked questions with the intent to spark dialogues. And that inquiry is as imbedded in the DNA of his art as it is in the Jewish culture. Why else would Sag Harbor be talking about a pair of 16-foot-tall legs for so many years after Larry’s passing?”

As could be expected, Rivers didn’t come to the East End without a fair share of drama. Around 1951, the artist convinced himself that he was in love with Jane Freilicher — a dear friend of his, and whose former husband, Jack,

Second panel.

introduced Rivers to painting. It was an unrequited love, as Freilicher’s gaze had turned to Joe Hazan, which sent Rivers into a downward spiral.

“Larry became very upset and, in dramatic form, slit his wrists,” Joel said. “Before it got too messy, he was able to call Frank O’Hara, who fortunately was home and came running over. Then, with the help of friends, it was decided that it might be best for Larry to get out of the city for a bit of convalescence in the country. So Larry went out to the Hamptons to stay with the Porters. In fact, there’s a really great portrait that Fairfield Porter painted of Larry sitting in a chair with his wrists bandaged.”

Rivers would move his home and studio out to Southampton, where he created some of his most important and influential work, Joel says. The two men wouldn’t meet until February 1986, and Joel was very intimidated, “but I don’t think that

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was his doing,” he says.

After a few days of working together, Joel relaxed as Rivers revealed himself to be incredibly sharp and categorically funny — albeit lacking a bit of tact, Joel says.

“He was the best person to engage in conversation because he was quite brilliant, very informed and always thinking. At the same time, he could be very insensitive, particularly when he was trying to figure something out,” Joel says. “He could be extremely difficult and also very endearing. He could be cheap one minute and stunningly generous the next. His way of showing his interest and concerns, his way of caring, always seemed to arrive sideways, but buttressed with real sincerity. And almost any situation going wrong could be turned around with a joke.”

When he wasn’t laughing, Rivers was working. He poured a great deal of observation and research into his art that, at times, could appear whimsical and irreverent. It was an irony he likely enjoyed. He could be found in his studio seven days a week with a remarkable level of focus, stamina and discipline that he used to push the status quo.

Joel doesn’t think that Rivers was an important figure in the art world. Instead, he says he knows. The artist challenged the tenets of abstract expressionism and cracked them wide open—and, for that alone, he will never be forgotten.

“He’s often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Pop Art’ or the ‘Grandfather of Pop Art’ — sometimes the ‘Father of Pop Art’ — but he really wasn’t a Pop artist,” Joel says. “The fact that there is always more than one name or one title used to define Rivers indicates the uncertainty that the art world has about his legacy and their ability to pin a label on him. Larry didn’t want to be stuck in one particular school. His art transcended schools, which makes him a tricky artist to sum up.

“For the secular crowd, I refer to Larry Rivers as a Socratic artist, someone who used his art to pose, often challenging, questions with the intent to spark dialogues,” he continues. “But actually, he’s a very Jewish artist and every night is Passover, and he’s the youngest able male at the seder.”

“An Insider’s View: Perspectives on the Art and Artist of Larry Rivers, From Inside the Studio,” a conversation with David Joel and Sivia Loria, will be held on Thursday, August 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor. Admission is free. “Larry Rivers: Jewish Themes” is on view through September 6 in the synagogue’s gallery space. For more information, call (631) 725-0904, or visit templeadasisrael.org.

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