It’s not always easy to contend with an artist who decides to bite the hand that feeds him. But that’s what happened recently as the Skirball Cultural Center opened its current show, a triptych called “The History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews,” with a presentation by the artist, flamboyant Larry Rivers, before an audience of some 350 people.
Rivers, who is nothing if not irreverent, proceeded to insult everyone from the staff member running the slides to many of the guests who were intrepid enough to raise questions. The audience refused to be guyed, however; they laughed at Rivers’ numerous jokes and stayed until he abruptly ended the lecture with a gruff, “Alright, let’s go home.”
To anyone familiar with Rivers, 73, this should not have come as a surprise. Rivers, born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx, a first generation American, escaped family and neighborhood just as his parents had escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe. He took up the saxophone (he is a gifted player), changed his name, studied art. From the beginning, his was an outsized personality, and he was at the center of what could be called “the scene” in the New York art and poetry world of the 1950s.
His friends included musicians and writers and, of course, fellow artists, most of them leading abstract expressionists of the day. He also, it turned out, was a superb draftsman. He hit upon the idea of larky themes (e.g., Washington crossing the Delaware) and of leaving his mistakes — or at least some of them — within the paintings.
The paintings tended to be large in scale and narrative in theme. Biographical figures found their way into the work; as did jokes and personal references. It was celebrated by some critics; attacked as illustration by others. But criticism aside, Rivers himself was always at the center of a particular social world, one that included hip musicians as well as writers and such poets as Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg. He was known as much for his personality as for his audacious art.
He is currently raising eyebrows at the Skirball with his glibly titled “The History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews.” The 10-by-14-foot canvases depict 3,000 years of Jewish history, from Moses to the Diaspora, pogroms to the Lower East Side. The densely-packed panels are painted against a backdrop that looks, in places, like matzo. The piece utilizes Rivers’ technique of “recycling” images from Old Master paintings and photographs, and his penchant for visual punning.
Moses is depicted as he appears in a Rembrandt painting, except the features are those of Rivers’ jovial, elderly cousin, Aaron Hochberg. Michelangelo’s “David” is circumcised and has Semitic features, resembling those of the artist. The czar of Russia is shown with a knife through his forehead; and a figure of the child violin prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin, is capped by a halo.
At the Skirball, Rivers joked that he is the result of the Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to America — and of his parents “doing it.”
He told The Journal that his parents sent him to a Workmen’s Circle school, where he encountered “a lot of strict-looking men with beards who made my life slightly uncomfortable.” He despised the “bad rabbi art” he saw in the neighborhood.
He changed his name one evening in the ’40s, while he was playing a jazz concert in the Catskills. An emcee chanced to introduce him as “Larry Rivers,” and the name stuck. “It felt more comfortable,” Rivers admits. “In America at that time, you were very conscious of the fact that a great deal of the population hated you.”
By 1953, Rivers had become an artist and had burst onto the art scene with his brash painting after Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” &’009;
Over the next two decades, he also created a handful of Jewish-themed works, some of them based upon photographs of his family. He was “commercial and careful” about the style, however. “At that time, everyone was hung up on the ‘avant-garde’ and the idea of how you paint,” Rivers said. “Artists who painted Jewish subjects weren’t taken very seriously. You’re sensitive when you’re in that world, so I felt that if I dealt with Jewish subject matter, I had to do it peripherally.”
Rivers was in his late 50s when two New York art dealers commissioned him to do a history of the Jews in the same epic spirit as his vast 1965 assemblage, “The History of the Russian Revolution.” Because he was daunted by the task, he sought a Columbia University professor to help him make a “list” of salient historical events. He consulted his friend, the author Irving Howe, and studied hundreds of photographs provided by a researcher at The Jewish Museum in New York.
Rivers began the piece by projecting some matzo on a canvas and painting it on. In panel two, he playfully pays homage to his patrons, the art collectors Sivia and Jeffrey Loria, by painting their “donor” portraits inside an 18th-century Lithuanian wooden synagogue. Sivia is shown sitting in the women’s balcony, per Orthodox custom. Panel three ends before the Holocaust, Rivers suggests, because he ran out of room. &’009;
The artist hasn’t received all accolades for the piece, however. When “History of Matzah” debuted at the Jewish Museum in 1984, The New York Times compared it to the kind of illustrated history book one reads in religious school. An observer at the Skirball called the paintings “retro.”
Rivers, for his part, admits that painting the highly-illustrational piece “was scary for a person of my generation.” He initially thought of exhibiting the triptych in Brooklyn, he quips, “because I didn’t think friends of mine would go to Brooklyn.” &’009;
However, he feels the manner in which he paints rescues the work from “looking like a post office mural.” And, as he once told The New York Times, “Why can’t a person…do something that doesn’t have to do with the onwards and upwards of art?”
“The History of Matzah” is on exhibit through May. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.