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Southampton's 20th Century Influencers: Larry Rivers, In A Class By Himself

Updated: Sep 1, 2022


Self Portrait, 1998

92 Little Plains Road - Today

I’ll start my talk today on a brief personal note. When I was in high school in Southampton we got a thrilling new next-door neighbor on Little Plains Road. That is when the renowned artist Larry Rivers moved into #92 with his two sons and a housekeeper. It didn’t take long to learn that the housekeeper, Berdie, was actually Larry’s mother-in-law, recruited to tend to his children when he and his wife agreed to separate. Their understanding was that Larry would raise their two sons with the help of his wife’s mother, who also became one of Larry’s favorite models.

Rivers posing his Mother-In-Law Berdie c. 1953

Berdie was apparently an extraordinarily unflappable woman who drew praise from the poet Frank O’Hara as “a woman of infinite patience and sweetness, who held together a Bohemian household of such staggering complexity that it would have driven a less great woman mad.”

Rivers at the Bluebird in Riverhead

The neighbors were certainly aware of Larry’s colorful reputation as a force in the New York art world, an irreverent, sometimes shocking figure. I never actually met Larry though I occasionally saw him zooming around town on his motorcycle. I caught the occasional show of his work in Bob Keene’s Main Street gallery and I heard him practicing his saxophone late at night. He often played jazz with his friend and fellow artist Howard Kanovitz at a Water Mill offshoot of the New York nightclub The Five Spot. The Elm Tree Inn in Amagansett was another favorite venue, as was the Bluebird in Riverhead, where he was usually the only white man in the room. The big draw at The Bluebird was Red Lincoln’s Band, which invited him to play whenever he wanted to.

"Boy in Blue Denim" (portrait of son Steven), 1955

I missed a lot of the action when I left home for college but my younger sister Laura was well positioned to take advantage of our proximity to greatness. Laura and Larry’s son Steven were about the same age and as a friend, she was sometimes invited next door where she fell in love with the Rivers’ dog Bongo. She was also impressed by the bohemian lifestyle that permitted the children to eat Spagetti-o’s cold out of a can and allowed a fellow artist to fill the kitchen with captured wild birds that had some role in the man’s bizarre artwork. Adding to the offbeat aura of this unusual domestic arrangement was the constant parade of Larry’s friends, lovers and fans.

Larry Rivers c. 1972

The critic Sam Hunter wrote of Larry’s penchant for “generously throwing open his Southampton summer house to an endless troop of artists, poets, students, collectors, petitioners, and curiosity-seekers with only the vaguest credentials…” Hunter also noted that around town Larry could be immediately identified by the flamboyant attire he favored at the time–”cowpuncher’s boots, elaborately decorated shirts, gaudy, hand-painted neckties.”

Bongo the beagle

Eventually, when Bongo became an inconvenience in the Rivers household, she was allowed to move next door and became our dog. I was gone by then but when after Berdie’s death, the Welsh-born Clarice Price was hired to replace her, things got even livelier. Vivacious, voluptuous, and uninhibited, Clarice was soon Larry’s lover and later his wife. To the delight of neighborhood kids, she and her friends often gathered for some nude sunbathing in the Rivers’ backyard, where gaps in the hedge offered the kids a thrilling peep show. So that’s a glimpse of what it was like to live next door to Larry Rivers.

River's Parents - Sam and Shirley Grossberg

Yutzroch Loiza Grossberg, who will become Larry Rivers after a name change and rise to be a major force in American painting, is born in August 1923, in the Bronx. He’s the first child of Sam and Shirley Grossberg, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. Money from his father’s neighborhood hauling business has to be stretched but there is enough to send Yutzroch for piano lessons at the age of seven so he can accompany his father’s violin playing. Music, not art, is the family’s sole cultural pursuit but the saxophone soon replaces the piano in young Yutzroch’s affections.

Young Rivers on sax

Brilliant and precocious as a boy, he’s a nervous and multi-talented young man, managing to get what he calls “weird gigs” playing saxophone in third-rate jazz bands on the circuit, while still a teenager. At one such gig an emcee, daunted by the unpronounceable name of the combo’s saxophonist, punts and introduces him as “Larry Rivers and His Mudcats.” Rivers likes the sound of it and keeps the name. When bookings are slow, he’s obliged to help his father out, which usually involves pushing a hand-truck through the New York garment district. For a proud professional musician, this is an embarrassment, which has him veering into doorways to avoid being recognized.

In 1942, Rivers surprises everyone by enlisting in the Army Air Corps. Friends and family are shocked that the son of a Jewish Socialist, raised in a neighborhood heavily populated with Communists would not at least wait to be drafted. In the characteristically half-serious voice he uses in his so-called unauthorized autobiography co-written with Arnold Weinstein published 50 years later and titled “What Did I Do?” he analyzes his decision to volunteer. Was it an attack of patriotism inspired by Pearl Harbor? The fact that a lot of guys were doing it? Or was it really just a desire to get out of his parents’ house and leave the Bronx behind? As it turns out, his military career is extremely brief. When an Army doctor misinterprets a tremor in his hand as a symptom of multiple sclerosis, he is given an honorable medical discharge and a pension for life.

Juilliard before the move c. 1910

With the money from his military pension Rivers enrolls in New York’s Juilliard School of Music to study composition for a year while at the same time he’s still playing jazz gigs in and around New York. Then, when a player in the Johnny Morris Big Band is sent off to war, Larry quits Juilliard and takes his place. There he is befriended by band-member Jack Freilicher and his then-wife Jane, who will introduce him to the pleasures of painting and change the course of his life. They invite Larry to join them in the idle hours between performances which they like to spend sketching and painting. With their encouragement, Larry discovers a skill and inventiveness he had not known he possessed–an outlet for his nervy creative energy that will rival the thrill of making music and alter his lifestyle.

"Jazz Musician," 1958

He later explained: “I had been caught up in this romance with jazz, blues, drugs and night. Now I began to have pleasure in the daylight.” Which is not to suggest that he abandons all of his hipster habits. However high his stature might rise in the high-toned art world, a part of him will always be attuned to the New York jazz culture of his youth with its abundant drugs, casual sex and its top spot in the Kingdom of Cool.

River's first wife Augusta Burger

Rivers wrote of meeting his first wife Augusta Burger in 1944 at a dance hall attached to a temple on the Grand Concourse where he was playing a gig. A courtship ensues and when Augusta becomes pregnant, a rabbi makes it official in a ceremony held in the Rivers’ North Bronx apartment with music provided by Larry’s jazz pals. The couple moves in together with Augusta’s toddler son Joseph, later adopted by Rivers. Then on Halloween Day 1945, Larry’s son Steven is born. The marriage is nearly as brief as Rivers’ military career. In 1946 the couple separates agreeing that Larry will raise the boys and Augusta’s mother will join them to help, creating a rather unusual four-person household: a musician/artist, his mother-in-law, his stepson and his son.

Nell Blaine with an early painting

After the separation, Rivers moves into an apartment on East 21st Street near the loft occupied by the artist Nell Blaine. The Freilichers had introduced Larry to Blaine, whose bright, bold abstractions painted early in her career signal the bold personality of the woman who hosts and mentors a lively bunch of talented artists who flock to her door. She is a few years older than Larry who is eager to learn from the depth and breadth of her knowledge and understanding of the art world. He also responds to her as a fellow rebel against convention and they will have a close relationship. Nell introduces him to de Kooning, the critic Clement Greenberg and other important figures from among the crowd at the loft, and she persuades him and Jane Freilicher to enroll in Hans Hofmann’s Eighth Street School. Larry is still playing gigs around town but his focus is shifting more and more toward art.

Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann conceived his school as a place to teach young talented artists the art of studio work, without emphasizing any single style of painting. Jane was reportedly an excellent student. Not so, Rivers, whose rebelliousness at being told how to develop his talent is apparently accepted by Hofmann. The concepts of his school are fundamental, says Hofmann, but his students are free to violate them. While Rivers, wears his zoot suit to class, talks jive, and rejects most of what is being taught, Hofmann does not take umbrage, sticking to his belief that great artists don’t need rules.

Rivers' "Unauthorized Autobiography", 1992

Some of Rivers’ less forgivable behavior can certainly be attributed to his drug use which had been on the rise for some time and no doubt contributed to the dissolution of his marriage. He admits to shooting up a few times in the bathroom at Hofmann’s school but is so terribly sick afterward that he is moved to get his drug use under control. His sister is quoted in “What Did I Do?” remarking that Larry always had an interest in danger and that his daredevil approach to life accounted for some of his high living and drug use.

Rivers, Jackie Curtis and David Levy

Bold, brilliant and proudly provocative, Rivers is a complex person, oblivious sometimes to the havoc he leaves in his wake. In an essay, David C. Levy, Rivers’s friend, fellow musician and later president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, writes that “discovering Larry’s love of children was only one of many small revelations that helped me understand the warmth, loyalty, and occasional sentimentality that are part of the more private side of his complicated, protean, and publicly irreverent personality.” (Much later that view will be challenged when it is revealed that between 1968 and 1981, Rivers used his two daughters as the subjects of a film documenting their adolescence, showing them in the nude and interviewing them on the development of their bodies. It was roundly criticized as exploitation and abuse.)

Rivers labels this "My First Sale"

Rivers spends two years studying under Hans Hofmann. Hofmann was “very inspiring ,” he later told writer John Gruen, “but I never understood what he was talking about. I just felt everything.” What he will carry with him is Hofmann’s emphasis on drawing as the foundation of all art, and he will emerge from this, his only formal painting instruction, convinced that art is the right path for his creative expression. He continues to accept gigs and sit in on sessions just about every night, but by day he is painting, struggling as he later recalled, to find his way, uncertain of his talent or whether he is on the right track. His first paintings, small, cubist-derived oils, are never shown.

Pierre Bonnard's "Dining Room Overlooking the Garden," 1934-35

Then in 1948, the Museum of Modern Art mounts a retrospective of work by the French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard and Rivers realizes that pure abstraction–the reigning critical fashion–would never meet his expressive needs. Abstract Expressionism will be the unyielding orthodoxy in American Art for more than a decade to come but Rivers, never one to follow the pack, will find inspiration for unorthodoxy in Bonnard. He later recalled the Bonnard show as marking “a milestone” in his artistic development, convincing him that modernism was not incompatible with figuration. It frees him artistically, though not financially. With no guarantee that sales of his work will ever be enough to feed his family, he enrolls in the Art Education Program at NYU to earn a teaching degree.

"Woman at a Table," 1948

Liberated from the Ab Ex pressure, Rivers uses his new freedom to paint a series of high-keyed impressionistic still lifes and interiors which he shows at the Jane Street Gallery in 1949. It’s his first solo exhibition and is reviewed enthusiastically by Clement Greenberg, then a critic of almost unrivaled importance in the New York Art World. Greenberg hails Rivers as an “amazing beginner.” He praises the sensuousness of Rivers’ canvases and writes that he should ”continue his unorthodox approach and exploit further a native force that is already quite apparent in his art.”

Samuel Kootz at his gallery

In the spring of 1950 Greenberg and his co-curator Meyer Schapiro, invite Rivers to show, along with such emerging art stars as Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline and Grace Hartigan, in an important New Talent exhibition at the Kootz Gallery. Deviating from the Ab Ex orthodoxy was a gamble but a winning one for Rivers. Recognition of his remarkable talent has come early and burnished his reputation as a brilliant champion of the Avant Garde, all the more fascinating for his connections to the anti-bourgeois world of jazz musicians and to the whole downtown culture with its druggy vibe, its sexual license and hint of danger.

Rivers and Nell Blaine in Paris

Another artist might take such success as the first step on a clear path to the top. Rivers, though, has too much nervous energy to settle into a predictable groove. Instead, in 1950 he exits the New York art scene to spend eight months in Paris where he experiments with writing poetry. His reading of the poets Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch–all breaking new ground in poetry–has inspired him. But when he is joined in Paris by Nell Blaine, the poetry is put aside for some good times and some guidance from his madcap but erudite friend that turns his focus back toward art. They visit museums together and Rivers is deeply impressed by the Old Masters as well by Edouard Manet and especially Gustave Courbet.

Rivers on the “Mounting Tension” set with, from left, John Ashbery, Jane Freilicher, & Anne Aikman, 1950

Back in New York, Rivers solidifies friendships with the New York School poets he has admired through his reading, and begins to devote his days almost exclusively to painting. At night he pursues some of his old haunts, and discovers new ones. The poets introduce him to the Swiss-born experimental filmmaker Rudolph Burkhardt, who gives him a role in his 1950 movie “Mounting Tension,” playing alongside John Ashbery and Jane Freilicher.

Portrait of Larry Rivers by Fairfield Porter, 1952

Young, good-looking, unattached and now carrying an aura of artistic genius, Rivers pursues women with the same energy he devotes to everything else. At one time he believes he is madly in love with Jane Freilicher, to the point where her refusal to become lover rather than friend leads to a half-hearted attempt to slit his wrists. His friends send him to recover with the Fairfield Porter family in Southampton, where Porter paints him wearing a white T-shirt and bandaged wrists. How deep the wounds are to his pride or his wrists is open to question. Freilicher later dismissed the importance of Rivers’ stab at self-annihilation and even Rivers himself suggests in his book that it may have been “only another of my attention-getting tricks, maybe a little more melodramatic.”

Rivers and Frank O'Hara collaborating

Occasionally it’s men who ignite Rivers’s passion. Chief among them is the poet Frank O’Hara, who charms everyone he meets. Rivers first meets O’Hara in 1950 at a party hosted by John Ashbery. He writes that he and O’Hara “talked our heads off for two hours” before finding a quiet spot behind a window drape to kiss. As a love affair It’s intense, but nothing is meant to last in this crowd. Their friendship will endure, however, and Rivers will collaborate with O’Hara on a dialog of images and words called “Stones.” Just as O’Hara will later join forces with Grace Hartigan and Kenneth Koch in similar collaborations.

"The Burial," 1951

After returning from Europe with new heroes, including Gustave Courbet, Rivers starts work on his most ambitious painting to date, “The Burial.” Moved by the recent funeral of his grandmother, he chooses a dark palette for a graveside scene, taking his inspiration from an 1849 Courbet painting of a similar scene. The painting is exhibited in 1951 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York’s premier showcase for emerging artists, where gallery director John Bernard Myers is not only wild about the painting, he falls wildly in love with the painter. “Burial” is enthusiastically reviewed by the critics. One critic hails it as “bleeding with compassion and bursting with bravura,” another approvingly calls it “realism expressed in the abstract manner of today…” When “The Burial” is later purchased by a foundation and donated to the Fort Wayne University Museum of Art in Indiana, it is Rivers’ first institutional acquisition.

John Bernard Myers at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Myers plays an important role in advancing Rivers’ cause, which the artist freely admits. He broadens Rivers’ cultural horizons and introduces him to such cultural lions as Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden. Myers is remarkably astute in choosing which artists to show, having a sharp eye for talent and a deep understanding of art world currents and undercurrents. The relationship with Rivers endures for years, mostly to Rivers’ advantage, but when Rivers decides to leave Tibor de Nagy for an exclusive arrangement with the more prestigious Marlborough Gallery, Myers flies into a rage, screaming, “I’m going to destroy you!” He doesn’t, and eventually a manageable friendship rises out of the ruins.

Rivers (in hat) with the gang in Water Mill

"Self Figure," 1953

Around this time Rivers is expanding his circle of s and poets who become lifelong friends. He’s introduced to the lively scene on the East End of Long Island where many of those friends are finding refuge from the city. He spends a couple of summers in rental cottages, sharing at first with Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. In 1956 he buys the house on Little Plains Road, a miracle wrought by his biggest fan, John Bernard Myers. It was Myers, writes Rivers, who got James Merrill, poet son of Merrill Lynch partner Charles, to put up the down payment on the house, which he buys for $10,500. Monthly mortgage payments are just $54.11. With more room for his offbeat family and his art, he begins to make plaster sculpture. And having received his degree in art education in 1951, he is able to teach now and then for a paycheck to help cover the family expenses. Game for anything and always in need of money, he designs sets for O’Hara’s play “Try, Try,” and is not too proud to work as a caricaturist on weekends at the pen counter in Bloomingdale’s.

From 1953 to 1957, Rivers lives full time in Southampton where he is developing the style of painterly realism for which he is known, mingling drawing with patches of color against an ambiguous ground. As he later explained, “I wanted to get away from it all, To do my paintings more seriously without any of the interruptions of the city.” It’s a rare period of relative calm when he reportedly reads 21 novels—Balzac, Stendhal and all the Russians–though he also finds time to appear in his friend Rudolph Burkhardt’s film “A Day in the Life of a Cleaning Woman.”

"Washington Crossing the Delaware," 1953

He is also working on “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which is generally considered his breakthrough painting. “An effort of mixed sincerity and ironic inspiration” is the way the critic Sam Hunter describes Rivers’ remake of Emmanuel Leutze’s grandiose 1851 version of the heroic crossing. Rivers himself credits his reading of “War and Peace” as inspiration and unabashedly claims that he set out to paint “the most controversial painting of our time.” It was intended to take his style of painting, charcoal drawing, and rag wiping to a new height, he said, adding, “The mixture of grand art and absurdity was with me from the beginning.” To find out what Washington’s men might have been wearing when they crossed the river, he did some research at the Rogers Memorial Library where he found what he needed in the children’s section in books lavishly illustrated with revolutionary uniforms and equipment.

Rivers with one of his sculptures

The critics are mixed but, predictably, the painting outrages avant-garde sensibilities at a time when Abstract Expressionism is dominant. For the pretentious, high-culture art establishment of the time, mockery is the worst offense. Rivers is crushed by attacks from his peers but there will be no more lame suicide attempts. He exhibits his sculptures, collaborates with O’Hara on a play, and he’s included in several important group exhibits. Fairfield Porter, a sympathetic and respected guru for the group of artists with a figurative bent, gives Rivers the use of the barn behind his house in Southampton to work on large-scale paintings. There will be ups and downs but after “Washington Crossing the Delaware” Rivers’ position as an exciting force in American painting will never again be successfully challenged.

"The $64,000 Challenge"

In 1957, when Rivers has no more than $1,000 in the bank, he is invited to be a contestant in the very popular TV quiz show “The $64,000 Challenge.” Several different versions of this strange episode have floated around but in Rivers’ own account, he’s visited in Southampton by the show’s sponsors, grilled on his personal life–presumably to assure he will not go off the rails on national TV,--and soon finds himself on the set with his competitor, a jockey who happens to be an expert on modern art. After a few easy questions, he begins studying seriously, realizing that he has a chance to win. He admits to getting pushy with the producers, pressuring them for hints on what areas he should be studying for the next challenge. He also acknowledges benefiting from a kindly librarian who is familiar with what the panel composing the questions are reading.

Southampton Polish Hall

The tip helps Rivers to answer the $64,000 question correctly, though, unfortunately for him, the jockey also knows the answer and each contestant is awarded $32,000. There being no TV in the Rivers Southampton home, Berdie and the boys have been watching over at the Polish Hall, where they explode in wild whoops and applause at Rivers’ triumph.

The bride and groom, 1961

The $32,000 windfall is cause for celebration, but 1957 is also the year Berdie dies at the age of 66. As she starts to fail, Rivers is tender and attentive, and when she dies, she seems irreplaceable until Rivers hires Clarice Price to manage the household and fill the void. Clarice, a former teacher of music and art in London, is everything Berdie was not–beautiful, voluptuous, highly intelligent, funny and game for whatever’s happening. Rivers is smitten and they are married in London in 1961.

Larry and Clarice in Southampton

For the next six years, Clarice will provide a stable–if still somewhat chaotic–home life in Southampton and in New York, where Rivers is again spending winters. She will also serve frequently as Rivers’ model, give birth to two daughters, and become a popular member of the lively circle of artists and poets summering on the East End. Rivers, always flirtatious, will have two more lasting relationships in the years following his separation from Clarice. He and the artist Daria Deshuk will live together for a decade, have a son, and remain friends for life. The last five years of his life will be spent with the poet Jeni Olen.

"Amel Camel," 1962

From the 1960s on honors and accolades accumulate, though Rivers is not consistently prosperous. “I wasn’t always rich and admired,” he claims in his book. “I had an uncomfortably long period from the late sixties to the mid-seventies of continued glitter but little gold.” He follows his historical subjects with paintings that appropriate and incorporate images from popular culture such as cigarette packs and bank notes, as well as family photographs. Some critics claim that because he chooses to paint everyday items he is a forerunner–or even the father–of Pop Art, though others point to significant differences in approach and style.

Right to left: Second set of Legs in Sag Harbor, Original set of Legs at SAC, Original Legs in their new home, a private residence in Southampton Village

In 1969, Rivers accepts a commission from the Smith Haven Mall for its “Forty Feet of Fashion” display. He creates a pair of 16-foot-tall fiberglass legs that have a controversial afterlife when they leave the mall. They are first displayed at Rivers’ home on Little Plains Road, where entering guests have to walk through the legs. There are complaints from some neighbors and in time they are exiled to Sag Harbor, where, again, they are not entirely welcome. Neighbors complain and building officials claim they violate height restrictions in the historic district where their new owners reside and they are eventually removed. Only last summer, at the Southampton Art Center’s outdoor exhibition, “Whimsey,” do the legs find a truly appreciative audience.

The Independent Jewish Cemetery, Sag Harbor

In 2002, the same year he is given a major retrospective at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington DC, Rivers is diagnosed with liver cancer. He dies at his home in Southampton in August and is buried in the Sag Harbor Independent Jewish Cemetery. Over the years his work was exhibited in 42 one-man shows from New York to Tokyo and he is represented in the collections of every major museum in New York and many important museums throughout the country and abroad. Few would dispute his friend David Levy’s prediction that Rivers will be regarded as one of the truly influential painters of the second half of the 20th century.

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1 Comment

Leslie Lowery
Leslie Lowery
Feb 02, 2022

Bravo, Mary! Excellent article about a complicated and interesting figure in the modern art world. Leslie Johnson Lowery

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