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Sunday, July 18, 2010

In the Mood (on Larry Rivers and his Autobiography)

Larry Rivers

Rivers, "The Bedroom"

Larry Rivers with Grace Hartigan's hat
In the Mood
by Douglas Messerli
And I said "Hey, baby, it's a quarter to three
There's a mess of moonlight, won't-cha share it with me"
"Well" he answered "Baby, don't-cha know that it's rude
To keep my two lips waitin' when they're in the mood"

Larry Rivers, with Arnold Weinstein What Did I Do?: The Unauthorized Autobiography (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)

As I mentioned in My Year 2003, in February 1996 I visited Arnold Weinstein in New York City to discuss the Sun & Moon publication of his play, Red Eye of Love. At that time Arnold presented me with a copy, evidently on Valentine's weekend (for he drew a big heart upon the title page, dedicating it to "Doug, N. Y. Poet in L.A."), of Larry Rivers's What Did I Do?, a book which, as Larry read from his handwritten copies, his close friend Arnold had typed into the computer, querying Rivers throughout those several months in 1991 about comprehensibility and style.

For years after Arnold had presented this book to me, it sat unread on my bookshelf until this year (2009), as I determined to write on Larry Rivers, who died on August 14, 2002. It was time, I decided, to take the opportunity to get to know this artist better.

I met Rivers only twice: while he was reinstalling his History of the Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky in the Hirshhorn Museum galleries in the 1970s, an occasion I doubt he would have remembered, and at Arnold's 1996 party. But Rivers apparently knew nearly everyone in the New York art scene, and, accordingly, we had many shared acquaintances outside of Arnold Weinstein; I felt, somehow, as if I'd known him for years.

That may be simply a delusion arising, however, from now reading his autobiography, for there is something so disarmingly personal and revealing about this work that by the time one is finished reading it, one has the sensation of intimacy with the artist. For What Did I Do? is not simply an account of Rivers' achievements—although he certainly makes clear what he feels he has accomplished, or, at least, attempted to accomplish through his art—but is a study in a failed man, a crazy, often drugged-out, macho-maniac, who left his first wife Augusta and their children (her son from a previous relationship, Joseph, and the son they produced together, Steven) alone for nights in their Bronx apartment, while he played Baritone Saxophone gigs at numerous jazz and other night spots, boozing with his friends (when he wasn't sick from his hits of heroin) and seeking out the pleasures of other, usually younger women. The only difference in his treatment of his second wife, Clarice, is that he, a bit older, spent a few more nights in their Southampton home or their Chelsea apartment. As a recognized artist, he no longer played music as often, but his drug-taking, drinking, and general carousing did not cease.

There is, of course, a great deal of macho-performance in Rivers's recounting of these acts, and sometimes it appears almost as if he were listing his heartthrobs, male and female (painter Jane Freilicher, poet/curator Frank O'Hara, poet Jean Garrigue [who, after becoming pregnant, had an abortion performed upon her by another, better known poet, Dr. William Carlos Williams], and numerous other women—including his own sister and his mother-in-law, Berdie), to impress himself and readers that he lived a fascinating life. Yet, the sensitive reader often cringes at just these passages, for deep down, we perceive, that Rivers is not only terribly unsure of himself, but, as many of his artists friends recognize, dramatizes with blustering braggadocio to make himself loveable in their eyes. His cock-sucking episodes with his dealer John Bernard Myers, can be seen a kind of desperation in the younger artist to get ahead, to "put himself on the art map." And, although even the artist makes certain we comprehend that many of his insecurities stem from his youthful awkwardness (a thin boy with a long nose, a nearly green tinge about his skin) and his Jewish immigrant upbringing, we also know that there is just enough truth to his bad-boy Rimbaud behavior to truly make Rivers an adventurous rouge.

On the good ole boy side of his personality, we also recognize his love and support of his children, his affection for his wives and friends, particularly Clarice, fellow jazz performer-artist Howard Kanovitz, Weinstein, and, in particular, O'Hara. Although Rivers makes it quite clear that he is heterosexual, we might well agree with W. H. Auden that there are no homosexuals, just homosexual acts, given the immediate attraction between O'Hara and Rivers. Upon their very first meeting the two find themselves at evening's end in an intense kissing session. And throughout their friendship, and despite Rivers's attempts to cut off his services, it is clear that he "sucked Frank's cock" fairly often. One of the major admissions of his failures was Rivers's inability to stand up to Clarice regarding her dislike for Frank's current boyfriend J. J., which meant that Frank was not invited every weekend, as he might have liked, to their Southampton house. Indeed, the one fatal weekend when O'Hara was killed by a beach buggy on Water Island occurred after Rivers had made up an excuse to keep him and J. J. away. The scene Rivers remembers after his moving account of O'Hara's death and funeral serves as cold comfort:

I'm reminded of an event that combines the absurd with the incomprehen-
sible. About three weeks before Frank was killed on Water Island, he was
visiting me out in Southampton. It was early July. I was married to Clarice
and reasonably busy with marriage and her. Gwynne was almost two, and
another child was due the first week in August (we named her Emma Fran-
cesca). Frank, alone with me in the house, poked his head into the dark, and
said, "In the mood for a little blow job?"—which hadn't happened for years.

I pondered the question.

What was I pondering? "Why not?" I said.

When Frank died I found myself absurdly comforted by my decision to
comply. Why? So he could take one less disappointment to the grave.

...What difference would any of these things have made to the disappearance
of a soul?

Rivers' unstable behavior may be at the center of this book, but his autobiography is also filled with hundreds of gossipy tidbits about the art, music, and literary worlds—enough to sustain anyone for years to come (i.e. who was married to whom and who didn't and did grow up with fabulous wealth).

But more importantly, What Did I Do? speaks volumes about Rivers' own art and makes clear that this so-called "pop artist" was serious in all the art historical references. He truly loved Ingres, Bonnard, Monet, David and hundreds of other artists, dead and alive, nearly as much as he loved life and his hundreds of friends. Rivers wasn't merely "pop," for he was mothered by a long tradition of visual artists who, despite his everyday failures in life, gave sustenance, putting him "in the mood," so to speak, to create his powerful figurative canvases and sculptures.
Finally, I realize just how nice it has been to know Larry Rivers for all these years, even if the friendship has only been one of the head.

Los Angeles, February 12, 2009


Michael Andre said...

I only met Larry once, but often felt he was like Gregory Corso; I met Gregory too many times.

The great difference: poets are painters' poor cousins. Larry had to sell a drawing for drugs; Gregory would have to steal from some poor fan. And thus people remember Larry as generous and wonderful.

David Joel said...

I rarely make a comment on sites that speak about Rivers, (at least sites that I'm not running) but for what ever it's worth. I think you wrote a fair and perceptive piece. Even if you only met him twice you seem to have some deeper insights, which I think demonstrates your ability to truly move beyond the two meetings as well as reading beyond his words and into his art. I think you have a solid grasp of the complexities that constitute Rivers the guy and artist. Good read. Thank you.