Larry Rivers, “Vocabulary Lesson (Polish)” (1964-65), oil on canvas. 22, ¼ x 33 inches (image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery © Larry Rivers Foundation / Licensed by VAGA)

A retrospective exhibition of a mere 20 pieces by an artist as prolific as Larry Rivers would give any reviewer pause, especially if that reviewer felt compelled by convention to pinpoint where Rivers belonged on a flow chart of the second half of the 20th century. That Rivers earned a place on that chart is unquestionable. But his work reveals a tendency to resist alignment with any single path. While he evaded mainstream movements like Pop Art, he oddly and selectively adapted elements of those same movements. It’s quite a challenge to wade through his stream of contradictory attitudes and purposefully mismatched techniques.

(Re)APPROPRIATIONS, the slippery-sounding title of the late artist’s current exhibition at Tibor de Nagy, may be catchy but narrowly directs one’s attention to the Neo-Duchampian thread that can be found intermittently in his work, yet hardly stands out as central to his vision. The unavoidable reality is that Rivers shunned a central vision. Any single coordinate in the weave of the Rivers tapestry leaves one no better oriented than another.

Larry Rivers, “French Money (Nero)” (1962), oil on canvas, 36 x 59 ½ inches (Private Collection, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery © Larry Rivers Foundation / Licensed by VAGA)

What does come through in this exhibition is his passion for and innate ability to paint figures convincingly, rendering them with sensitivity and expressiveness that rise above the decorative or the ironic. What is unique and significant about Larry Rivers is his reluctance to abandon the subjects that inspired him to be a painter, while embracing the avant-garde.

Larry Rivers, “Syndics of the Drapery Guild as Dutch Masters” (1978-79), acrylic on canvas and board, 98 ½ x 69 ½ x 5 ½ inches (image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery © Larry Rivers Foundation / Licensed by VAGA)

There are some real standouts in this exhibition, including “Syndics of the Drapery Guild as Dutch Masters” (1978–79), which had hung in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel for years before disappearing and becoming the object of a lawsuit over ownership. “French Money (Nero)” (1962) underscores Pop Art’s provincial limitations (does only American popular culture count?), while painterly flourishes enhance the usual perfunctory look of the genre. Most unusual is the defiant “Augusta”(1954), a frank expression of Rivers’s admiration for the academic tradition, completed at the peak of Abstract Expressionism’s international standing. Installed across the room is the better-known and equally immense portrait of the poet Frank O’Hara, “O’Hara Nude with Boots,” finished the same year. The astonishing impertinence of both, appearing as they did in the mid-1950s, reveals how passionate Rivers was about the figure.

His attitude toward music was similarly grounded in tradition. Prior to his unusual swerve toward painting, Rivers was enrolled at Julliard (along with a young Miles Davis), where he demonstrated an abiding respect for the both history of music and for bebop’s sophisticated harmonic experiments. Thus, it should be no surprise that in his early years as a painter he expressed an enthusiasm for 19th-century figural techniques, even as he immersed himself in the cutting-edge New York art scene. “Vocabulary Lesson (Polish)” (1964/65), for example, may be a parody on Jasper Johns’s ironic use of language, but unlike a typical Johns, also demonstrates how Rivers could bring relaxed elegance to a simple figure sketch.

Installation view of Larry Rivers: (RE)APPROPRIATIONS (photo by Alan Wiener)

Rivers’s talents were best suited for the nuts and bolts of painting, not its theoretical potential. Consequently, his embrace of avant-garde trends did not always work out very well. A glaring example is the double portrait called “Bill and Elaine de Kooning and Woman I” (1997), which presents the pair as painted cut-outs projecting eight inches from the surface, then redundantly modelled in grisaille. “Woman Reclining in a Yellow Robe” (1997), based on a 1937 Matisse, is more successful in its use of the third dimension, as the flat color and hard outlines of the original translate better into semi-abstract and sculptural elements.

Perhaps the cliché of a painter’s painter offers the best escape from the difficulties of analyzing Rivers. His restless seeking is what inspires most. He was a genuine risk taker. And yet, what’s especially apparent in the selection at Tibor is that the uneven, sometimes manic variations he indulged in proved less successful the farther he strayed from his talent for figure drawing.

Larry Rivers: (Re)APPROPRIATIONS continues at Tibor de Nagy (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through Oct 29.

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Peter Malone

A lifelong resident of NYC and environs, Peter Malone is an exhibiting artist, a retired assistant professor of art, an involved grandfather, and an amateur musician. He really has no time to write art...