The death of an artist is an ideal time to evaluate his place in art history, as well as his financial potential. The market potential of some artists who have "recently" passed away, such as Roy Lichtenstein, are embarrassingly easy calls. However, Larry Rivers presents more of a challenge. The length of his career, which spanned the tail end of Abstract Expressionism to current times, makes the task even more difficult. Then there are the inconsistencies in his work's style and content. Any way you look at it, Rivers is an art-market analyst's worst nightmare.
If you go back to the beginning of his career, during the early 1950s, Rivers made a name for himself as a bit of a "scenester." He hung out with many of the key artists of his era at the Cedar Bar, while developing a reputation as a painter, poet, musician and actor.
His early work was good, but not as important as that of Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell and other contemporaries. Rivers' style can be described as "fill in the blanks" -- lots of intentionally unfinished passages in his paintings. Among his most well-known figurative pictures are the nude portraits of his mother-in-law, Berdie Burger. When you think about it, what artist would ask his mother-in-law to pose in the buff for him?
These paintings were a harbinger of the quirky surprises that would mark Rivers' significant but ultimately unsatisfying career. Much of Rivers' psyche was revealed in his autobiography, What Did I Do, where he graphically described an erotic encounter he had as a teenager with a stuffed easy chair in his family's living room.
As Rivers' paintings evolved and began to take on a Pop sensibility, his work began to diminish in originality and power. He began to blatantly quote art historical images, such as Rembrandt's, in his famous Dutch Masters series. In many of his paintings, he utilized a stencil to paint words that described the images that were portrayed. To Rivers' lasting credit, his use of language basically pre-dated Jasper Johns, as well as Ed Ruscha.
Yet, even though Rivers was extremely connected in the art world, and exhibited at the once-prestigious Marlborough Gallery, his market never took off. To use a cliché, he sold out. His paintings became wildly commercial. The work descended into a pastiche of kitsch images, such as a woman in a leopard coat, with a leopard crouching on a tree branch above her.
His late works were frequently painted on pieces of shaped foam core in an attempt to portray the three-dimensional qualities of the real world. Unfortunately, this gimmick led to talk that Rivers had become a parody of himself. To make matters worse, Rivers knew that he was squandering his status and talent. He was often quoted as saying his obituary would refer to him as a master of the vulgar.
If you look at his financial track record during the late 1980s, you will find that Rivers was one of the many rising boats carried higher by the surging tide of the boom market. His record at auction was achieved by a large painting, from 1961-62, titled Africa I. It was sold by Sotheby's in May 1990 for $467,500. Since then, Rivers' performance at auction has been spotty, with many paintings not finding buyers.
In the most recent round of sales, during May 2002, there were three Rivers paintings that appeared in Sotheby's day sale. The highlight was a signature work titled, Mauve Dutch Masters. This 25 x 26 in. collage on board from 1963 handily beat its $35,000-$45,000 estimate to sell for $71,700. The sale of this work was offset by the failures of Berdie with Red Face from 1958 (est. $30,000-$40,000) and the 1960 canvas, Arab King Hussein at the UN (est. $30,000-$50,000).
Even though in time to come galleries will do a number of memorial shows (and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., just opened a retrospective), the Larry Rivers market has no future. It's unfortunate, and probably a little unfair, that despite the significance he achieved as an artist who helped bridge the gap between the 1950s and the '60s, his market will ultimately be lost in all the excess of his late work.
Sure, there are plenty of artists, such as Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, who created historically important bodies of work and then went on to humiliate themselves with virtually unlimited editions of "garbage" prints. The difference is that these two artists, at the height of their creative powers, produced work that helped change art history. Rivers was a contributor but not a true innovator.
Another negative factor in his market is that his collectors are all over 50 years of age, and probably over 60. Young collectors have no interest in Rivers, which is a crucial factor that's unlikely to change in the future. The most probable scenario is that a few museums, scrambling to fill in their holdings of art from the 1950s, will emerge as buyers for any major paintings that come onto the market. Ultimately, Larry Rivers mattered as an artist and an art-world personality -- but not necessarily in that order.