Looking for Larry Rivers, 1993
I had always wanted to meet Larry Rivers. Many years ago, at a party at Bob Abrams’ loft, I saw “Dutch Masters and Cigar Box II.” It was a gigantic painting of Rembrandt’s Dutch merchants re-imagined with cigars by Rivers that compelled me to come closer. I had never heard of Rivers, but I loved that painting. I promised myself that someday I’d meet him.
That promise was fulfilled four years later via an Art in America ad:
“Masters Workshop in Art – visiting artists Eric Fischl and Larry Rivers – Southampton College”
Four weeks to paint and play on the beach – and finally meet Larry Rivers? I signed up.
A talented group of twenty-odd artists comprised the class. We were bound by two loves: the beach and art.
Each day began with a lecture. At noon we lunched, sometimes with the visiting artist. Our work was critiqued in the afternoon. Afterwards we painted, often late into the night.
Early in the workshop, a young-fortyish guy joined our group in the studio. He sat in faded orange shorts with one foot up on the edge of the table. His legs were tan and muscular. I thought he was too handsome to be the visiting artist. “Remember your color theory,” Eric Fischl said to me in a voice that sounded like Jack Nicholson’s. (Remember to take color theory, I said to myself.) “You need a line of red, here, to balance all that blue.” I drew in the line of red with a fine sable brush and the skyline popped.
Other artists came to share wisdom. April Gornik, Suzanne Anker, and Idelle Weber told us male artists earn ten times what women earn. Even more sobering was a male artist who was bitter. The art world showered chosen people with wealth and glory, while others were left destitute.
But what defined an artist and how did one become “successful?”
On weekends I visited galleries to try to understand. I walked barefoot on a floor of cotton balls while blunted daggers hung from the ceiling. This was Art? Galleries and art journals gave space to theory over beauty. What was I to think?
I kept painting and sold my first work for $350. Was I now an artist because I had sold my work? There were great painters who never sold anything in life and whose work only emerged long after they were dead.
It seemed a successful artist had to be prolific and focused on their art to the exclusion of even loved ones. Could I do that and be happy? Had Larry Rivers done that?
I read about Larry Rivers from various sources, including his own “Unauthorized Autobiography,” and thought “that bastard” as often as I thought “wow.” One photographer said it best: “He’d be a great dinner companion.”
I continued to paint but the irony was there was never enough time to paint since we were meeting the artists constantly. Except Larry Rivers; where was he?
Ann Chwatsky, the director who organized this exceptional program, mentioned Rivers – a musician before he started painting — played saxophone at Hansom House. So one Saturday night, two friends and I drove there. Inside, we were startled by a life-size sculpture of a motorcycle biker with crazy eyes. There were couches, long low cocktail tables, Venetian chandeliers, dark lighting and an old-fashioned Hansom carriage. The bar was empty but filled up quickly.
The band walked in and I turned to see which one was Larry Rivers. I didn’t know what to expect. He had to be 40 years older than me, but seemed younger and more vibrant than I expected. Imagine your favorite artist standing ten feet in front of you playing the sax.
He warmed up and then left the stage to talk to friends. He glanced at me, and I smiled. In my mind I said, “Hello.” He looked at me and smiled and said, “Hello,” across the room.
My friends’ mouths dropped open. Rivers met my eyes again and smiled at me. He looked at me time and again that evening. What a wonderful thing to have someone who you’ve longed to meet intrigued by you!
After the first set, another classmate who looked like Michelle Pfeiffer chatted him up. He introduced her to his friends. It was so easy for her, I thought. I wished I was outgoing like that.
Despite my shyness, I went to talk to him. “Mr. Rivers? I admire your artwork and really like hearing you play the saxophone.”
He smiled, looking pleased that I had approached him. I was quiet. His hand shook as if he was nervous or maybe from holding the heavy sax.
“Tongue-tied?” he asked. “What are you drinking?”
“It takes nine or ten to have an effect. How many have you had?”
“Are you in the same program as – “ he pointed to Pfeiffer.
“What kind of painting do you do?”
“Figurative; it’s getting more abstract.”
“How long will you be out here?”
“Are you a full-time painter?”
“I teach computer art and creative writing; it’s my second year.” I really wasn’t in story-telling mode. “I love your cigar box painting.”
“Where did you see it?”
“In Bob Abrams’ collection.”
He looked puzzled for a moment and said, “Bob must be the son – I knew Harry, the father.”
I said something that he mistook as me having to leave. “There’s another set,” he said. “Stay for the next set.” We went back to our places – he to the stage, me to my seat.
During the set he smiled at me more than once.
Afterward, he said that I’d see him on the 29th when my class came to visit him at his studio.
Visiting artists were not always nice. An artist a friend admired leveled a grueling critique of her work. She wasn’t prepared for the harshness. She held herself together long enough to leave the room then she broke down. I said, “Why don’t you come to Cooper’s Beach?”
We played tag with the waves, running in and out of the foam on the soft white sand. As we swam, the yellow sun grew pink and sank lower in the sky. Lying at the edge of the water it occurred to me that going in search of an idol is dangerous business; I was bound to be disappointed.
As the month progressed, I entered a contest to see who could use new art materials in the most innovative way. Gambling that people would paint on canvas, I layered stucco and fiber mediums on top of a metal plate I found on the beach and painted on it. It was a dark piece and I was unsure of its beauty. I tied for 2nd place.
Gradually, I made peace with the word ‘artist.’ It seemed to describe a space defined by the dimensions of both creative genius and commercial success. Perhaps the unifying thread was work that spoke some personal truth.
We visited Larry Rivers’ studio as promised on the 29th.
On his wall Rivers had posted, “Young artists imitate. Mature artists steal.” There was a drawing of a penis underneath. Larry Rivers was on many medications, his hand was shaking (which I later learned was what got him dismissed from the army) but he was incredibly lucid that day. He spoke about the art scene and his influences.
I felt the magic of his paintings all around me. It was as if I was back in Abram’s loft looking at Dutch Masters for the first time, except these were new paintings. I walked up close to them. The critics would later say that he did them to sell to the nouveau riche – big layered scenes of Picasso and Monet with their paintings. They worked for me. Captivated by the layers of his work, I wanted to know what he knew.
I stepped back and looked at the real person in front of me. I noted the lines in River’s face and thought he’s 43 years older. I couldn’t imagine bringing him home or explaining my feelings to anyone that day. It was business as usual, or was it?
In the sunny, warm light surrounded by his work, I felt the pull to know him more, not just to examine the surfaces of his paintings, but to understand his charm. As strong as this compulsion was, instinctively I knew that being physically close with him wouldn’t give me that.
In that sunlight, I became aware of a change in myself. I was a student again. It was always about his talent; his painting, his mind, his music.
At the end of the day I said, “Mr. Rivers, would you please sign this for me?” With a laugh, he looked at me thoughtfully and signed a box of “Dutch Master” cigars that I had brought with me as an homage.
What I wanted most was for my idol to stay just that.