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Rivers is in the course of expanding his reputation as the U.S.'s most resourceful "historical" painter with a project entitled "Some American History," which opens this week at Rice University's Institute for the Arts in Houston and will travel to several other cities. Commissioned by the de Ménil Foundation of Houston, its theme is the historical experience of blacks in America.
Originally, the project was conceived as an all-Rivers show. But, aware of the black community's hard eye on whites who "appropriate" black history, Rivers involved six black artists in the project: Frank Bowling, Daniel Johnson, William Williams, Peter Bradley, Joe Overstreet and Ellsworth Ausby. "When I told them I was going to do a show on black subject matter, they looked at me as if I was a nut. So I said, why not contribute something, and they said, what are yousome kind of hip overseer? I said no, that I didn't think you had to be a chicken to talk about an egg, but that I was acknowledging their special expertise. Ya know, how they were chickens."
But most of the works in the show are by Rivers, who contributed 38 drawings, constructions and paintings, ranging from an immense wooden model of a slave shipwith a taped reading by a black actor from the memoirs of an 18th century slaveto Lynching, a group of hanging plywood figures of dead blacks around the sprawling figure of a white girl on a bed. "I put her on the floor underneath the figures to emphasize the sexual inference under the issue of race in this country." There is even a constructed replica of a Harlem tenement's front stoop, complete with jumbled trash cans; from it issue the taped screams and shouts of a family killing a rat in their room.
It may be too early to tell whether "Some American History," with its sprawling dioramas and wide range of loaded subjects, will be taken as propaganda, or history, or reality, or radical chic, or simply as an art show. Compared to the immediacy of film or videotape, history painting of any kindeven Rivers'seems a curiously archaic approach to urgent political reality. But it is a sign of the times that it could be commissioned and put on in Texas at all.