The Younger Rivers


Larry Rivers’ “Double Portrait of Berdie” is in the new exhibit at Guild Hall.

By Marianne Levine

 The name Larry Rivers conjures up many images and stories for those familiar with his life and work, and both will be celebrated once again in River’s first posthumous show, “Larry Rivers: Major Early Works” at Guild Hall in East Hampton starting with a free opening reception on Saturday August 9 at 5:30 p.m.  For those not familiar with Rivers’ art, it will be a fresh look at his mid 20th century work, which combines aspects of abstract expressionism and pop art. Christina Mossaides Strassfield, the show’s curator, explains that Guild Hall wanted to “honor him after he passed away in 2002, but it all came together only recently with the creation of the Larry Rivers Foundation.  He had such close ties with Guild Hall.  He even made us a birthday cake for our 50th anniversary.” And she goes on to relate that to her great satisfaction almost all of his major early works will be on display in the intimate setting of Guild Hall’s Moran Gallery.  On exhibit will be some of his most famous pieces such as “Double Portrait of Berdie” from the Whitney Museum of American Art, and “The History of the Russian Revolution” from the Hirshhorn. Some, if not most, of the work on exhibit was created in his Southampton studio.

Ms Strassfield explains that they decided to display work from the 1950s and early 1960s because it was “an important time for him.  He had studied with Hans Hoffman and could have been a second-generation abstract-expressionist, but he went against the prevailing trends and decided to do something different. He created figurative work with pop art images and yet still used the movement and brush strokes from abstract expressionism.  He wasn’t a minimalist.  He was true to himself.” The decision Larry Rivers made to buck the artistic trends and characterizations of his time highlight his grand individualism.

However well-known and important his work may be in the context of 20th century art history, Larry Rivers was first and foremost a true American character.  A man who started life as Yitzrok Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx, and subsequently renamed himself Larry Rivers as a jazz saxophonist and Juilliard student in the 1940s, he was befriended by the likes of Miles Davis while at school. He only became interested in painting in the later part of that decade, and had to support himself as a musician while studying fine art. Although painting and fine art may have eventually become his most notable forms of artistic expression, Rivers never stopped performing as a musician or actor, and he refused to limit himself to any one genre by eventually writing poetry, plays, and painting the Cedar Bar menu and designing stage sets as well. At one point he even became a grand prize winning contestant on a game show. 

With all this talent and energy, Rivers’ own interesting life and personal relationships were bound to be at the forefront of his reputation, and may have at times taken the focus off his important and influential work. In other cases his collaborations with friends such as Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara may have been an advantage. Ms Strassfield adds, “There was a lot of camaraderie between the artists. He was friends with Jane Freilicher, who first got him interested in painting, and he knew Jackson Pollack and deKooning and poets such as John Asbury and Kenneth Koch who really supported each other.” And when they all ended up at some point or other relocating to eastern Long Island in the 1950s, Rivers joined them, with his sons and mother-in-law, leaving behind a difficult marriage and unhealthy life style so he could, “get out of the city scene for a bit – away from the drugs and drink, and go someplace fresh and clean to do his work,” according to Strassfield. 

Although Larry Rivers is certainly a man of his time, and an important artist of his era, Strassfield mentions that a lot of his work seems quite fresh today, and especially she noted his short Beatnik film, “Pull my Daisy” which will be screened along with a Lana Jokel documentary “Larry Rivers: Public and Private” throughout the run of the exhibit.  Guild Hall will also be hosting more events such as the panel discussion, “I Remember Larry” on August 10 at 10 a.m., and a gallery talk by Christina Mossaides Strassfield on August 23 at 3 p.m. Ms. Strassfield sincerely hopes that the show will “renew interest in Larry and re-examine his place in art history,” since in many ways he was an artist who not only refused to follow the pack but also was ahead of it.