The death of Larry Rivers last week spotlights a conundrum at the heart of creativity: the live jones of fecundity vs. the dead hand of commodification.
Before his death, the auction prices for Larry Rivers' work from the last 30 years had sunk to the day-sale Mendoza line of $1,000.
There were few takers, for example, for Rivers' Andrew Wyeth-like paintings of the history of slavery (from ca. 1998), in spite of their appeal to political correctness and the surprising sureness of line in Rivers' drawing.
Can anyone doubt that these pieces will immediately seek a higher market?
Outre museums such as the Hirshhorn and the Whitney saw their prospects increase due to their major holdings in Rivers' work.
The Whitney was quick to publish a paid obituary in the New York Times, and the Hirshhorn, of course, mounted a comprehensive survey of Rivers' work a decade ago, when Larry's critical reputation reached its lowest ebb. That exhibition especially highlighted Rivers' iconic, if then faded and shopworn, images of Washington crossing the Delaware, the Dutch Masters, the Soviet Politburo and his assemblages of Camel cigarettes.
It's guaranteed that all of this stuff and what else is available (and Rivers was adept, like R.B. Kitaj the ex-pat Rivers, at providing prints, drawings, etc., of his favorite subjects ad nauseum) will soar at auction.
By putting Larry's obit prominently on page one, a place where it would never eulogize, say James Rosenquist or Marisol, the Times keenly underlined its unerring sense of future, putative commodification.
In short, Larry Rivers, totally reviled by the contemporary art world for most of the last four decades, is now boffo, S.R.O. and a big future money-maker.
Too bad he had to die to make it happen.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).