Here’s a trivia question: What source of inspiration did Larry Rivers and Pablo Picasso have in common? Those who are familiar with the bad-boy stories in the two artists’ biographies might reflexively think of muses, but the answer is: Both artists created works for the staging of major pieces by the composer Igor Stravinsky.
In the exhibition “Celebration of Larry Rivers,” Vered Gallery presents 29 pieces made by Rivers for the controversial 1966 production of Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex.” A suite of four sculptures by Larry Rivers created in 1970, collectively titled Me and My Shadow, share the gallery and offer a valuable addition to the history of photography-based art in the 1970s, prefiguring similar ideas of the Pictures Generation.
The July 20, 1966 performance of “Oedipus Rex” by the New York Philharmonic (under the baton of Lukas Foss) used a backdrop, setting and costumes designed by Rivers. He elected to create a boxing ring onstage, inside of which Oedipus, clad in a fighter’s gear, did battle with his antagonists and his own demons.
Most of the pieces on view at Vered are spray paint and oil images of locusts, made with stencils on linen mounted on free-form shaped wood panels. A reference to the plagues that afflicted Thebes during the reign of Oedipus, they surrounded the singers during the performance and have the kind of rough-and-ready, street-art blur that the world now associates with Banksy.
The fuzzy legs of the locusts, which made me think at first they were bees, add to the sense of menace that a proper interpretation of Sophocles would demand, even if the opening night audience did react with indignation to what they perceived was a tasteless joke being played on them by the 43-year-old provocateur. The orchestra was dressed in shirtsleeves, for one thing, and the few in the audience who applauded at the end were mainly friends of the artist.
The narrator was the actor Jason Robards (for the original version of the work, it was Jean Cocteau himself, who had written the libretto based on Sophocles). The ending of the piece, the coup de theatre that pushed the audience to the brink of a whole new level of annoyance, was a blast of white radiance straight into their eyes from a bank of thousand-watt stage lights, blinding them temporarily so they could have a taste of what Oedipus was going through.
Even if the reception was cool, the staging with backdrop and costumes by Rivers made its mark. Critics warmly invoked the memory of the production when reviewing a recent avant-garde production of another oratorio, Le Grand Macabre” (slang for “the Grim Reaper”) by the György Ligeti. The brass at Lincoln Center in 1966 must not have been too perturbed by the reviews, as they returned to Rivers as one of the artists commissioned for posters as part of the Vera List Art Project .
The Vered exhibition presents a selection of the locusts that were used onstage along with one of the original stencils, itself an intriguing work on paper with its haze of spray paint. There is also a fascinating pencil drawing of the then newly opened Avery Fisher Hall stage that Rivers used to work through the concept of his design.
This study, which I found one of the most absorbing moments in the show, surrounds the carefully rendered stage and orchestra ranks with little circles denoting the heads of the audience. Drawings like this, together with photographs from performances or dress rehearsals, are extremely valuable artifacts, not just for the study of Rivers as an artist but as documents in the rich history of collaborations between major artists and theater impresarios.
In the 20th century, the absolute highlight of this interdisciplinary activity was the “A team” assembled by Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, who enlisted the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, De Chirico and many other avant-garde artists for productions in Paris, Monte Carlo, Rome, London, and on tour in North America—but never in Diaghilev’s homeland, Russia.
Rivers can be seen as following in that tradition, particularly considering that Stravinsky was the star composer of the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev, and Cocteau was the top writer for the company. Their two-act version of “Oedipus Rex” was presented in Paris in May 1927, with the composer conducting. Big shoes for Rivers to step into and a challenge he gladly accepted.
Having moved to Southampton in 1953, Rivers secured the Lincoln Center commission thanks in part to his East End connections with the music and theater worlds of New York. I discovered, comparing the dates on news clippings, that the opening night of the tragic oratorio was the last time Rivers saw his dear friend and collaborator Frank O’Hara, for whom Rivers had designed the sets for a play. The poet, who had been upset with Rivers about the nonchalant tone of the artist’s statement he had provided for the “Oedipus Rex” program, was killed in an accident on Fire Island four days after the opening.
The other half of the Vered show consists of four life-size sculptures making up the suite Me and My Shadow. These two-part life studies consist of one vertical element, mounted against the wall, attached to a floor element that “mirrors” it compositionally. The pieces cleverly incorporate photograph and photomontage mounted on canvas and covered with plexiglass of voluptuous young women in various stages of undress.
No stranger to the erotic in art, Rivers poses one of the figures, still in her panties and cowboy boots, pulling her top off, her face obscured by her arms. The allure is cooled by the grisaille effect, as Rivers has used black and white photographs on which many of his painterly marks are also in a range of grays.
Although the two artists are vastly different from one another temperamentally and in terms of the audiences they attract, the four works by Rivers reminded me of Christian Boltanski’s installations, which use black and white portraits mounted in sculptural reliefs inside boxes. Both convey that feeling of living figures immured suddenly in ash.
I have long been an admirer of Rivers as a painter, especially the atmospheric portraits of his mother-in-law Berdie made in the 1950s, and there are many rewarding moments in Me and My Shadow from that perspective. He highlights a shoulder, leg and hip with blue and plum-colored patches, and these sparing applications of color are all the more meaningful for their subtlety.
John Baldessari also uses this technique, but with greater graphic contrast than the melding of color and form that Rivers achieved. The most marvelous painterly touch, though, is the green right eye he embeds in the cutout space of one figure’s face, leering from the shadows like the furious eyes of one of de Kooning’s females. It has all the power of the theater’s thousand-watt bulbs concentrated in one small orb.
BASIC FACTS: “Celebration of Larry Rivers” is on view July 28 to September 5, 2016 at Vered Modern and Contemporary Art, 68 Park Place Passage, East Hampton, NY 11937. www.veredart.com.
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