It is not given to many artists to find themselves shoved to the periphery by movements they helped provoke, but that is what happened to Larry Rivers. One critic's claim that "the innovations of Rauschenberg, and to a lesser degree Johns and the Pop artists, are incomprehensible without Rivers" is plainly excessive. Nonetheless, Rivers built an important bridge between the painterliness and "touch" of Abstract Expressionism and the mass imagery of Poppinups, photos, print, mixed media.
In the process, he became one of the first American examples of the artist as celebrity, wielding what Harold Rosenberg felicitously called "the shady lyricism of the Sunday supplement." He was blessed (and afterward dogged) by the circumstance of being everyone's idea of the hipster from the Bronxa mean blade, good with a saxophone or a motorcycle, the flamboyant, randy and infinitely dexterous picaro of Tenth Street. But by the end of the '60s, his virtues had to an extent rebounded on his reputation. His astounding skill as a traditional, realistic draftsman looked vaguely suspect to some critics. The ironical love with which he raided the beaux-arts tradition for such images as Napoleon, a reworking of David's 1812 portrait of the hero, struck them as literary but in the wrong way: not philosophical enough, unconcerned (unlike Johns and Rauschenberg) with the semantics and sign structure of art. The new celebrity artist was the cool and silent Andy Warhol, not the hot and copious Rivers. Any artist who is as unabashedly a romantic as Rivers, and puts his lifestyle so much on the line, becomes an open target. The tendency has been to look at Rivers' self-indulgence, not his commitments.
In fact, as his recent show of works from 1964 to 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York made clear. Rivers' output is a highly intelligent mixture of both. Black Olympia is an example. It is one of Rivers' retakes: a version of Manet's famous painting in the Jeu-de-Paume with a black servant girl offering flowers to a white mistress. But Rivers made two images, one with the black maid and the white girl, the second with the roles switched. The political point about racism and master-servant relationships is concisely made. It stems from a seminar Rivers had in Portland, Ore., several years ago, when black art students bombarded him with such questions as: "How would you like to look at art when the only people you see in it are pink?"
"So I decided," says Rivers, "to make a work in which I'd reverse that situation. At first it seemed like a corny minstrelizationyou know, white people in blackface. But I really wanted to see if it could be done. It failed."
But it is done with great bite and panache. The trouble is Olympia's pet cat at the end of the bed, black in the original, white in the reversal. Its transformation thrusts Black Olympia out of the world of politics and back to aesthetics by suggesting that the color of people matters no more than the color of cats which, in some Utopia, may eventually come true: but not here and now. Admits Rivers: "The only way to test the idea would be to change every Rembrandt that hangs in every Dutch museum, in fact every painting that exists, into black people."