- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

Larry Rivers painted "Washington Crossing the Delaware," a sketchy, impressionist parody of Emanuel Leutze's well-known academic work of the same name, in 1953. The painting depicts a crucial moment in the American Revolution, and most schoolchildren can't escape reproductions of Leutze's iconic work in their classrooms. Moreover, it's one of the most popular paintings in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This was the image that jump-started Mr. Rivers' career and should have been the linchpin of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's exhibit "Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist," which opens today. The Corcoran organized the show into five sections Personal History, the French Connection, Art and Artists, Show Business and History and Politics and placed the seminal work in the last room. Granted, a decision on how to show the varied and uneven work of the prolific artist must have been difficult, but "Crossing the Delaware" should have been up front.

The painting also announced the artist's contradictory approach to art and life. While he mocked Leutze's epic idealism, he also respected it. Mr. Rivers, 78, admired abstract expressionism while reintroducing storytelling and the figure. He uses the gesturalism and squiggles of abstract expressionism to portray Washington and his ragtag band of followers. In doing this, he also trumpets the figure as the subject. The artist even modeled the head after the Leonardo da Vinci drawing "An Old Man in Hell."

Abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock believed that gestural brushwork and a stream-of-consciousness approach were the keys to unlocking raw emotion, their aim at the time. Use of figures to express intense emotion was a definite no-no. Mr. Rivers combined the figure with abstract expressionism and, in so doing, began the pop art movement, followed closely by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Surprisingly, the Corcoran exhibition is the first retrospective of Mr. Rivers' work and spans five decades of his paintings, sculptures and works on paper.

Although he was a controversial figure in the 1950s New York art scene a "bad boy" in the midst of other bad boys he painted an amazing group of friends and family in the first gallery, Personal History. Works such as "The Family," a portrait of two of his sons and Bertha "Berdie" Burger, his mother-in-law, shows unusual psychological insight. The same is true of his portrait of Joseph ("Joe") Hirshhorn, a close friend and collector of his work. There's also a moving double portrait of Mr. Hirshhorn and his wife, Olga. Both were painted four days before the collector died.

"Larry was a good friend and we went out to his place on Long Island for a week for the portraits," Mrs. Hirshhorn says. "Joe liked Larry as a person and an artist and was attracted to the rebellious side of Larry's personality. We had a lot of fun together."

Inspired by the French painter Theodore Gericault and other old masters, Mr. Rivers insisted on painting many of his sitters nude, as was traditional in earlier times. This may be somewhat startling to visitors to the exhibit but shows the artist's devotion to traditional art even at that time. He was also a master of multifigure portraiture, as when he painted the "Double Portrait of Berdie," probably one of the most unusual portraits done at the time. Mr. Rivers painted her both rawly and sensitively when she was in her 70s. With the painting's size, subject and details of his subject's sagging flesh and bulbous breasts, the artist broke all the rules of the abstract expressionist reign of the time.

The painter made the lines in his artwork sing as few artists have. He had studied with the New York art world guru Hans Hofmann, who taught that line was crucial to all visual art. Mr. Rivers also loved jazz and worked the "line" of his saxophone playing as he did the line of his art, especially the portraits. His father was a Russian immigrant who owned a small trucking company in the Bronx and played the violin in the evenings. Young Larry, then Yitzroch Loiza (Irving) Grossberg, first accompanied his father. He became a professional jazz musician in his late teens, and music influences much of his painting and drawing.

Mr. Rivers continued with what has been called "a minestrone" of art styles, progressing to French-enlivened works inspired by his many trips to Paris. He then moved to the work shown in the "Art and Artists" section, transforming Rembrandt's "Syndics of the Clothmakers' Guild" to pop images; to "Show Business" pictures of Hollywood performers; to subjects from the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust.

He continued his love of shocking through works in these last galleries, especially with "I Like Olympia in Blackface." A takeoff on Edouard Manet's significant "Olympia" (1863), it reflects several hundred years of black American history and the story of race relations in the United States. "A Vanished World: Garbo and Gilbert I" is another spoof, this time of American films.

The show ends with the mixed-media construction "History of the Russian Revolution From Marx to Mayakovsky," also a Joe Hirshhorn purchase that went to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The work is gigantic and an important piece in the artist's series of history paintings. The construction was the hit of Mr. Rivers' exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum in 1965.

The exhibit almost looks as if different artists painted the different sections. "I thought of a picture as a surface the eye travels over in order to find delicacies to munch on; sated, it moves on to the next part in whatever order it wishes. A smorgasbord of the recognizable, and if being the chef is no particular thrill, it was a much as I could cook up," Mr. Rivers once said of his philosophy (interview with Barbara Rose in the film "American Art: The Sixties," Blackwood Productions, 1968).

Those who like smorgasbords and variety of painterly approaches will like the exhibition. Others who admire the artist's earlier airy painterly-and-linear style with psychological overtones will wish the gallery had concentrated on that period of Mr. Rivers' work.

An excellent catalog, with essays by David Levy, Corcoran president and director; Ms. Rose, an internationally recognized art critic; and Jacquelyn Serwer, Corcoran chief curator, accompanies the exhibit. Unfortunately, it lacks an index.


WHAT: "Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Tuesdays; until 9 p.m. Thursdays, through July 22

TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and guests of members, $1 students (12 to 18 years old with valid ID)

PHONE: 202/639-1800


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