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Rivers, Larry (1923-2002)  
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Prolific and controversial, Larry Rivers was an acclaimed artist, sculptor, and jazz musician, as well as a writer, poet, teacher, and sometime actor and filmmaker. He is considered one of the pioneers of Pop Art, as well as a masterly interpreter of the figurative tradition.

Twice married, and the father of five children, he nonetheless was very candid about his occasional sexual relationships with men, most notably the poet Frank O'Hara. Although he did not identify as either a homosexual or a bisexual, he nevertheless had significant same-sex sexual experience.

Biographical Details

He was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx, New York, on August 17, 1923, to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. His father, owner of a small trucking firm, was an amateur violinist who encouraged his son to learn music. As a child Rivers studied the piano, then switched to the saxophone and began a career as a musician in his early teens, primarily playing in jazz bands.

His name was changed in 1940, accidentally, Rivers claims, after a nightclub emcee introduced the teenager and his band as "Larry Rivers and his Mudcats."

In 1942, over his parents' objections, Rivers enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. After a short stint in the Army band, he was honorably discharged due to a neurological disorder misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

Rivers next enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Miles Davis was a fellow classmate. Rivers met other jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker, through Davis, and within a year left Juilliard and returned to playing jazz saxophone with various bands.

It was also around this time that he met and married Augusta Burger, the mother of a young son from a previous marriage, whom Rivers later adopted. The couple had another son, but divorced soon afterwards. In 1961 Rivers married again, to Clarice Price, with whom he had two daughters. They separated in 1967 but remained married and friendly. In the 1970s, Rivers had another son with the young painter Daria Deshuk.

Rivers died of cancer of the liver on August 14, 2002, at the age of 78.

Rivers's Early Art Career

Rivers came to art almost by accident. Playing saxophone in a band in 1945, he was introduced to the young painter Jane Freilicher, who was married to the band's pianist. She suggested that Rivers try painting; he took to it immediately and decided to pursue it over music. "After a week or two I began thinking that art was an activity on a 'higher level' than jazz," he later explained.

In 1947 Rivers enrolled in Hans Hofmann's celebrated School of Fine Arts in Manhattan. He stayed for nearly two years, drawing during the day and playing saxophone at night to support his family. He absorbed Hofmann's theories about color and form, but "frantic to draw the figure," he rebelled against the emphasis on pure abstraction, which was the dominant mode of American art at the time.

A 1948 Bonnard exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, followed by a trip to Paris in 1950, where he lived for several months studying the works of Courbet and Manet, revealed a wealth of painterly possibilities to Rivers. As a result, he confirmed his commitment to the figurative mode of art.

Rivers had his first solo art show in 1949 at the Jane Street Gallery in New York. Clement Greenberg, perhaps the most influential art critic at the time, called Rivers "an amazing beginner" and wrote of the "superb plenitude and sensuousness" of his paintings. (A few years later, however, Rivers fell out of favor with Greenberg.)

In 1950, Rivers joined the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where he was given a solo show every year until he left for the Marlborough Gallery in 1963. Rivers had been invited to join the Tibor de Nagy Gallery by its director, John Bernard Myers, who was gay. Rivers has divulged that he and Myers occasionally had sex together, although as Rivers later commented, "I always felt I was doing him a bigger favor than I was doing myself."

In 1953 Rivers created what has since become one of his most famous works, Washington Crossing the Delaware, both a parody of, and homage to, the classic 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze. Rivers's painting has been widely celebrated as one of the first instances of the use of Pop iconography in postwar American art. Discussing the work several years later, Rivers remarked, "I wanted to take something corny and bring it back to life."

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