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Yeah, What the Hell Did Larry Rivers Do, Anyway?

Ed Hamilton

What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography of Larry Rivers
Harper Collins, 1992


few years back, as I was rooting through the dusty old books at the Westbeth flea market, I came across a copy of What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography of Larry Rivers (Harper Collins). Rivers is of course a former Chelsea Hotel resident, and his Dutch Masters Cigar Box painting, “The Presidents”, which hung in the hotel lobby during the Stanley Bard years, had always been one of my favorites. The fact that the book was co-written by Arnold Weinstein, another Chelsea resident, and one with whom I had the pleasure of actually being acquainted (Weinstein died in 2005), was a further attraction. The book has a dedication: “for Mac – Christmas 92 with love from David + Susan”. Now, while I have no idea who these people are, since the Westbeth building on Washington Street in the far West Village is an “artists’ colony” similar to what the Chelsea used to be (although with a helpful stamp of government approval in their case), it’s fun to speculate. The vast, labyrinthine basement of the Westbeth must be filled with ancient, art-related artifacts such as this book, just waiting to be unearthed. Best flea market in town.

For those of you who don’t know, the Chelsea Hotel, where I’ve lived for the past twenty-seven years, and which had been closed for renovations since 2011, recently started renting out a few rooms on the upper floors earlier this year, also reopening the El Quijote restaurant on the ground floor. While What Did I Do? was published way back in 1992, I figured that, at this transitional time in the history of the Chelsea, we might take a moment to revisit our rich heritage, in order to take stock of what we’ve lost and perhaps even generate some ideas as to how we might best move into the future.

In any event, the book features some pretty good writing, and, while it lags in places and is over long, it’s mostly exciting and engaging, especially to anybody with an interest in the New York art scene. The only real problem is that it’s all over the place, such that, one moment you’ll be reading about the jazz clubs on 52nd St. and the next you’re flashing back to Larry’s problem with pimples in high school; or one moment you’re in an art gallery in the nineteen-sixties and then suddenly you’re on the beach in the fifties. Apparently the intention is to create a kind of “collage”, such as Rivers employed in his visual work, or maybe even an “improvisation”, as he was also a jazz musician (and heavily influenced by the Beats as well, often playing his baritone saxophone as poets read aloud in Village coffeehouses). Sometimes it works, but at other times the transitions are jarring, to say the least. We could always blame Weinstein for this, but Rivers—perhaps betraying a bit of insecurity in wanting to be considered a great writer in addition to a great artist and jazz musician—takes credit for the actual writing of the book, relegating Arnold to the role of transcribing to a computer as he, Rivers, reads aloud from a series of notes while the two men sit drinking in a barn in Southampton.

As for what’s good about the book, well, it has a grand sweep. Rivers knew everyone, went everywhere, and did everything—at least in the world of New York Bohemia. The entire Twentieth century is his canvas, and he makes the most of it. From a childhood in the depression and service in World War II, he goes on to study jazz at Julliard with fellow student Miles Davis, and art at Hans Hoffmann’s school in Greenwich Village. He parties with Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets in the Hamptons, and stars with fellow Chelsea Hotel alumni Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso in the underground film, “Pull My Daisy”. He acts in plays for the Living Theater (run by Chelsea Hotel residents Julian Beck and Judith Malina), and gets ripped off in a heroin deal by none other than the great saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Rivers never seems to have been too political, though he does his part in the cold war by traveling to the Soviet Union to show paintings of black and white cocks (“America’s No. 1 Problem”) and Japanese cunts dripping with cum to the disapproving Russian artists, and though his life intersected at one point with Abby Hoffman (yet another former Chelsea Hotel resident), who, after his (Abby’s) play at the Cherry Hill Theater, locked Larry and the rest of the audience in the theater for an hour to make a point about the Holocaust (precise point not specified). These guys weren’t afraid of giving offense.

Besides all that, the book contains plenty of great illustrations: dozens of black and white photos sprinkled throughout the text, together with two sections of color plates featuring reproductions of Rivers’ paintings. It’s a quality book—$30 for the hardback in 1992—as Rivers clearly made sure his art was displayed to its best effect. Too bad it doesn’t have an index, as, especially given the non-chronological nature of the text, it makes it difficult for the reviewer to locate specific passages, and equally hard for the casual reader to skip to the stories of their favorite stars (of which there are no shortage).

All of which brings us to the art itself. And if, perhaps, Rivers is not quite among the first rank of American artists, and his art is not as highly esteemed as perhaps it should be, many critics seem to feel, and Larry tends to believe as much himself, that it’s because he’s neither fish nor fowl, caught in the netherworld between competing schools of art. He employs the broad brush techniques of expressionism, but he’s a figurative painter—which could definitely get you punched in the nose by Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. And while he’s sometimes called the “Godfather of Pop Art” because he often references pop cultural icons, he doesn’t employ the clean lines of commercial art and he doesn’t have quite the same ironical detachment from his subject matter (being a lot more transgressive than most of the pop artists, for one thing).

Rivers was as free-wheeling in his persona as he was in his art. While he freely mingles with the two-fisted Cedar Tavern types, he’s flamboyant in his dress and his mannerisms, sprinkling affairs with men in with his even more numerous conquests among members the fairer sex. And while he assures us that gay men find him quite handsome, he doesn’t quite fit in with them either. So there you have it: he’s mercurial and hard to pin down. The only certainty is that Larry is a bad boy. The book contains myriad tales of his infamous, polymorphously perverse lifestyle. Starting with his forced initiation into the art of fellatio at the age of six at the hands of the neighborhood bully, through his attempt to coerce his younger sister into intercourse when he’s ten, on through his kindly uncle’s introduction to a simple-minded girl who services all the neighborhood boys, we get all the sordid details. A lifelong sufferer from premature ejaculation, Rivers refuses to let this slow him down (ha ha!), and his Peyronie’s Syndrome (which causes the penis to bend at a painful angle when erect) only makes things that much kinkier. In an apparent attempt to win the Heisman Trophy of Degeneracy, he tries to fuck both his sixteen-year old sister (maybe a different sister this time?) and his aged mother in law—though in both these instances he’s drunk out of his mind and, not to trivialize his actions, but he may not be entirely serious. Rivers has nothing to hide, but sometimes we sense that he has a reputation to protect: he’s a wild and crazy guy, and don’t you ever forget it! He seems to get a kick out of shocking people, both in his art and his behavior. There’s even a three way featuring his longtime subtenant and ghostwriter, Weinstein.

It’s somewhat surprising to learn that, while Rivers was married twice (with five children), had numerous long-term relationships and countless flings with women, and considered himself primarily heterosexual, the great love of his life seems to have been the poet Frank O’Hara, about whom he rhapsodizes:

I liked his Ivy league dirty white sneakers, he liked my hands full of paint. He was a charming madman, a whoosh of air sometimes warm and pleasant, sometimes so gusty you closed your eyes and brushed back the hair it disarranged . . . Through a moist pair of lips like a Cupid’s bow, he smoked and spoke with enthusiasm about the virtues of a thousand subjects. (p. 228)

And he was heartbroken when O’Hara died in a Long Island beach taxi accident in 1966, calling it, in the eulogy he delivers at Frank’s graveside, “the beginning of tragedy” and his first experience of loss.

Rivers won early acclaim for his painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and for his nude portraits of his mother-in-law Berdie Berger (same one he later attempted to “seduce”), and his most famous work is his gargantuan mixed construction, “The History of the Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky”. But among Chelsea Hotel residents he’s most fondly remembered for his Dutch Masters paintings, as a particularly good exemplar, apparently titled “The Presidents”, hung in the lobby (to the right of the door, coming in) for decades. The thing I like about this piece is that it’s so cleverly mind bending: the original Rembrandt painting “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild”, turns a bunch of businessmen into fine art; then the cigar company turns art into crass commerce (elevating the businessmen into “Masters”); and finally Larry turns the commercial object, the cigar box itself, back into fine art (and now elevates the syndics into “Presidents”). It’s pop art now, for sure, but it’s almost like it was pop art all along. The piece is gone now, removed from the lobby with the rest of the art when the Chelsea was sold in 2011, though the really crass commercialists (in other words the developers who bought the building) weren’t able to profit. The Larry Rivers estate sued, claiming that the artist had simply loaned the expensive cigar box to then manager Stanley Bard, rather than—as legend would have it—paying his rent with it. It would have been a lot of rent, after all, as the painting has reportedly been valued at $400,000.

At one point in the book, Rivers recounts the evening that Frank O’Hara brought him to the Chelsea Hotel to meet the great “composer-critic-curmudgeon extraordinaire”, Virgil Thompson, who immediately launched into a discourse about the importance of the skylight in painting:

In Paris in the twenties, Gertie—Stein, that is—took him to the studios of Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, et. al.; they all told him how important was the light of Paris, which could only truly be seen through the well-placed skylights of their ateliers. (p. 234)

Regrettably, Rivers seems to take the side of the present management, BD Hotels (who have blocked several skylights that previously opened onto the roof, including the central one in the widely celebrated staircase), for when Virgil asks him, “How’s your skylight, Mr. Rivers?” he answers, perversely, “I keep it covered.” Sorry Larry, but we’ll have to go with Matisse, Picasso, and Bonnard on this one.

But Rivers must’ve liked something about the place, because in 1963, he and his second wife, Clarice, moved into “. . . the somewhat less cockroach-crowded room with designer chipped sinks, abrasive stucco walls, and constantly running hot and cold water . . . in beloved Stanley Bard’s Chelsea Hotel.” (p. 429) Rivers gives us his impression of the hotel at some length:

. . . home of rock and roll bands and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan; Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe; Brendan Behan, the Irish bard, singing Israeli songs with Allen Ginsberg; George Kleinsinger, composer and Animal lover, who lived with snakes, lizards, beautiful women, and wackily plumed birds; a floor below the terrarium, in burnt umber rooms, the noble Virgil Thompson, composer, deaf as the snakes above him, surrounded by picture-crowded walls; Arthur Miller, typing away on his play in progress, After the Fall; another Arthur, Clarke, writing the novel 2001; another Clarke, Shirley, filming her documentary, Portrait of Jason; Andy Warhol shooting Chelsea Girls; Peter Brook preparing Marat/Sade; Ken Tynan reviewing for the New Yorker and reviewing nightly his marriage to Elaine Dundy; Viva, superstar; super painters de Kooning, Alechinsky, Dine, and Arman still in his black leather jacket; pushers and users of heroin, cocaine, opium, Quaaludes, speed, mescaline, angel dust, LSD—okay, enough, I’m nauseous!—and transient hookers, male and female, indistinguishable from most of the permanent residents, plying a lively trade. It all gave me the feeling that this was an ideal place to raise a family . . . (p. 406-7)

He might well have mentioned two more Chelsea Hotel luminaries: Stanley Kubrick, who of course directed the movie version of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Terry Southern, who wrote the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove (also directed by Kubrick), and who gave the title to Larry’s most controversial work of art, “Lampman Loves It”, a free-standing wood and Plexiglas sculpture depicting a Black man fucking a white Playboy Playmate (and later, partly on Frank O’Hara’s advice, a generic white man) from behind with a long, Christmas bulb-tipped penis.

Despite his disdain for skylights, you gotta believe that Rivers, who died in 2002, would’ve agreed that the Chelsea Hotel is too culturally significant to be turned into just another generic party warehouse—rooms from $500-$6000, with five bars planned for the ground floor alone—which is the direction we seem to be going in lately. Though his apartment was on the third floor, when he later obtained a studio on the ninth floor, down the hall from Virgil Thompson, the first painting he executed in the Chelsea, “Moon Man and Moon Lady”, featuring Village Voice dance critic (and Lesbian Nation author) Jill Johnston as the lady, boasts both the appropriate grandeur and the requisite other-worldly flavor that the Bard Family’s renowned “Rest Stop for Rare Individuals” demands.


Ed Hamilton