“Sometimes I don’t think I take myself seriously enough. Sometimes I hate myself for taking me too seriously.”
TRQ: Larry Rivers, Born August 17, 1923
Artist, musician and filmmaker, Larry Rivers, known as the Godfather of Pop Art, was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx, NY on August 17, 1923.
He played the piano and saxophone as a child and was performing in the Catskills even before his bar mitzvah. He changed his name after a comic introduced his band as Larry Rivers and the Mudcats.
Rivers claims that “like any normal heterosexual boy,” he started having sex with other boys as a teen.
In 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps and joined the Army band. However, he was honourably discharged because of a tremor in his left hand, and started attending the Juilliard School of Music in 1945. There he studied composition with fellow student Miles Davis.
That year he started painting and studied at the Hans Hoffman School in 1947. He graduated from New York University with a BA in art education.
As a member of the New York School, he gravitated towards Pop Art. His painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, was one of the movement’s first works.
Looking back on the painting, Rivers later explained, “I wanted to take something corny and bring it back to life.”
Sexual experiences with other men continued through his 30s.
“Sex with men wasn’t exactly my bag, but if they got my cock hard they could have it,” Rivers writes in his autobiography, What Did I Do?.
Rivers writes that “homosexual sex, for me at around twenty-seven, was an adventure, for a while on par with trying a new position with a woman… I was so convinced of being heterosexual… I could be homosexual.”
Rivers spent much of his time in Greenwich Village through the 1950s. He participated in the first group show at the Terrain Gallery in 1955. He began a longtime relationship with poet Frank O’Hara, after the two met at a holiday party hosted by gay poet John Ashbery.
O’Hara wrote in a letter to Rivers, “I am neither starved nor sated by you alone, and I’m sure it’s the same with you, but we do interest each other in some way.”
In 1954, Rivers painted O’Hara Nude with Boots, a homoerotic nude portrait of his lover wearing black boots. In 1959 he appeared in Pull My Daisy, directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, written and narrated by Jack Kerouac, and featuring poet Allen Ginsberg and artist Alice Neel.
His painting The Greatest Homosexual (1964), is intended to capture the effeminate and campy attitude Napoleon presents in Jacques-Louis David’s The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812) hanging in the National Gallery.
Rivers’ style blended elements of camp, nostalgia and tragedy. According to Andy Warhol, “Larry’s painting style was unique—it wasn’t Abstract Expressionism, and it wasn’t Pop, it fell into the period in between. But his personality was very Pop.”
In the 1960s Rivers lived in the Hotel Chelsea, also inhabited by Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sid Vicious and various superstars of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
After O’Hara died in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island in 1966, Rivers delivered the eulogy. Soon afterwards Rivers’ reputation for vulgar notoriety and lofty experimentation reached its peak.
He continued making art and playing music on tours until he died of liver cancer on August 14, 2002, in Southampton, New York.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C., and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris continue to exhibit his work.