Larry Rivers and the Fluid Nature of Seeing

Larry Rivers, “Self Figure” (1953)

Fractured energy plays across the surface of this work in oil on canvas. Ostensibly, it’s a painting of a single figure moving through space. To my mind, what’s represented here is not a person but an event. The character is insubstantial. The “self” depicted is not fixed in time. The face echoes itself as if yesterday has faded and a new face is now slowly emerging. The man’s moment is mutable. Small squalls everywhere make the canvas a study in transformation.

In “Self Figure” it’s impossible to distinguish between figure and the background. Both are painted in exactly the same manner. I view this painting as though it were the flickering screen of an old movie after the film has deteriorated. A detail emerges here or there—a carefully rendered hand or facial detail. These come forward only to melt back into the ground of the image.

For his paintings, Rivers often chose deeply personal subject matter. He made portraits of his sons, his mother-in-law, and his many friends active in the arts. He also chose historical moments and used his brand of pastiche and collage to comment on them and to suggest something new about our understanding of these events and the ways that they had previously been shown in iconic paintings.

Rivers’ “historical” painting,  “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” certainly contrasts with Thomas Sully’s depiction of this crucial event that marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War (“The Passage of the Delaware”). Sully’s work, painted in 1819, depicts General Washington elegantly and heroically posing on a white horse against the impending night. He is clearly the man of the hour. In Rivers’ work areas of thick paint give way to sketched-in places where we almost seem to lose the image all together. This “solid” piece of history has been made into a single fleeting and fairly insubstantial moment, a thing with frayed edges, a place where people merge with the landscape and then emerge once again.

Rivers visual language masterfully represents uncertainty, the fluid nature of our seeing and beyond this, and at a deeper level, the uncertainty of our knowledge. The historical issues in Rivers’ paintings—the very definitions of cause and effect—are lost in such atmospheric conditions that suggest a multi-dimensional geography of the mind—perhaps of the painter’s mind or maybe a collective mind in which we rewrite history on a moment by moment basis both remembering and forgetting.

Always Rivers’ paintings tell me not to believe too much in what I think I know. Each of them resembles a piece of music. Once heard, it disappears.