Magazine article Artforum International

What He Did: Barbara Rose on Larry Rivers. (Passages)

Magazine article Artforum International

What He Did: Barbara Rose on Larry Rivers. (Passages)

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE REASONS I came to New York before I was old enough to go anywhere was to meet artists like Larry Rivers. Larry was already famous--or infamous--for indulging in activities that white-bread America in the '50s believed was a one-way ticket to hell. Everything about him was offbeat and funky. He was vain enough to lie about his age. He was either seventy-six or seventy-eight when he died this summer of liver cancer in Southampton, Long Island, where he hobnobbed with the rich and famous while still living more or less the life of a hobo. But this was typical of Larry's endless contradictions, both as a person and as an artist.

Larry was a Jewish mother's nightmare. I think it was my college classmate and his teenage girlfriend, the gorgeous Maxine Groffsky, who introduced me to the hostile, affectionate, generous, stingy, gregarious, insecure, serious, superficial, all-American mutt who managed to offend most deeply those he loved the most. I first saw his paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1957 as a teenage hostess for a Barnard fundraiser. The gallery was run by legendary dealer-entrepreneur John Bernard Myers, who was obsessed with Larry and regaled me with endless stories of his antics as well as his bad faith. By the time Johnny began burning my ear with the fecklessness of his prodigious discovery, I had already met the Bad Boy of the New York School. Johnny could not get over the fact that Larry did not respond to his tender sentiments, and when Larry left him for the Marlborough Gallery he was truly destroyed by what he considered an act of high treason. And the fact was, Johnny had a right to cry the blues, since he had not only believed in Larry but created his career and legend.

Over the next four decades, I got to know and respect the bar mitzvah boy born Yitzrock Loiza Grossberg in a Jewish ghetto in the Bronx (he changed his name to Larry Rivers, probably inspired by Muddy Waters, to pursue a career as a jazz saxophonist). When I decided Larry had yet to receive the recognition he deserved as one of the best artists in the history of American art, I saw the need to organize his retrospective. His major defenders in the art world, Myers and Art News editor Thomas Hess, were gone, but so was Clement Greenberg, his worst enemy. I offered the show to every major museum, on both coasts, and was turned down by all of them. The word on the street was that Larry was great until 1960 but it had been all downhill from there. I didn't agree. Finally, David Levy, a friend of Larry's and the director of the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, DC, arranged for his last hurrah, a full-scale retrospective that opened in May, just before Larry heard the news that he had only a few months to live.

I worked on the project in a desultory fashion for a few years because Larry never made life easy for anybody, including himself. Whenever I went to his huge loft studio on Thirteenth Street, filled with paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, books, manuscripts, girls, kids, archives (if you could call the disarray of slides and papers that), musical instruments, junk furniture, and so on, the visit always began the same way:

Larry would open the door in his undershirt, sweating because he had just finished working out, and say, "Wanna fuck?" When I demurred, he would immediately make the second ritual offer: "Wanna eat?" This meant going to the local Polish cafeteria where he took his friends, clients, critics, and anybody else who happened to be hungry. The Ritz it wasn't, but if you could survive lunch, then you had passed the test and could look at pictures. Other heavy dues included having to listen to Larry play sax with his group at a local restaurant once a week. From time to time he would lament that jazz was his real talent and that painting was only his violon d'Ingres. How wrong he was.

So now that Larry and his entertaining storytelling and charismatic personality are gone, who was he anyway? …

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