Larry Rivers titled his recent New York show "Fashion," as if to underline the incredible power clothing has as kinetic and interactive art. Rivers presented 29 drawings and 13 paintings, including several low-relief works made of painted, sculpted foamboard, that prove his draftsmanship has not waned since he entered his 70s.
Well known for his Pop-era copies of staid Old Masters like Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953) and Packing the Dutch Masters (1998), Rivers now chooses images that appear to be drawn from the pages of fashion magazines. At the same time, other works are obviously based on snapshots of friends and family, and still others are clearly done from a posing model. Sometimes stiff, sometimes sexy, the bold colors, slashed shadows and sure lines continue Rivers' tradition of cool Pop and devotion to the mark.
Two especially powerful drawings are Italian Vogue I and Italian Vogue II, both depicting an embracing couple. Vogue II displays Rivers' characteristic rough energy. The muted palette, graffiti-scribbled dress and muscle T-shirt can be seen as completely contemporary or as an echo of filmmaker Roberto Rosselini's New Realism after World War II.
A similar ambivalence is displayed in the pin-up poses that Rivers uses in Shoe Sale, a drawing in pastel and pencil, and in the colored-pencil drawing A Seated Italian. Both are reminiscent of the covers of pulp novels and men's magazines. The straightforward oil portrait of Olga, Russian Model in the Artist's Studio is enriched with narrative details, like the kilim on which the model sits, a piano and drums in a corner, and an ambitious painting propped in the background. In a Prada-esque suit, The Thinker, a large oil, pulses with moody sexuality, similar to Rivers' famous 1954 nude of poet Frank O'Hara wearing motorcycle boots.
The mixed media Two Seated Women is a small jewel from 1971-72. The pair of Kahlo-esque twins, one in muted garb and the other in glittering blue, echoes the self-portraits of Rivers' Pop colleague, Marisol. Another beautiful drawing is Arnold Weinstein Taking Balzac Pose, an endearing portrait of the artist's collaborator on his 1992 autobiography, What Did I Do?
When Rivers' expressionistic style wavers, the illustrative results can seem shallow. But Rivers' sojourn into fashion's drama of idealized youth and beauty revitalizes his Pop exploration of image and process. As one of contemporary art's true and unfettered individualists, Rivers' alchemy of painterly realism and Pop affiliation reveals an energetic and fluent technique.
Larry Rivers, "Fashion," Nov. 9-Dec. 4, 1999, at Marlborough, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
ILKA SCOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.