Off the Cuff: An Heiress and our Collection

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

Charles Shepard, FWMoA President and CEO. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Earlier this week, I was looking at the terrific Gloria Vanderbilt painting that hangs in the atrium near the Museum’s entrance and thought how fitting it was to display this work by such a very talented, but often overlooked, painter. Due to her success in the fashion world – think Vanderbilt jeans – Gloria’s contribution to Modern art was greatly overshadowed, and generally underappreciated. I’m proud that we have the opportunity to introduce her work to thousands of our guests each year. I’m equally proud, though, that Gloria made a little known but extremely significant contribution to our Museum’s collection: a seminal 1951 painting by artist Larry Rivers entitled The Burial. How exactly did that happen? Did Gloria decide to spend her long ago Labor Day weekend in the Fort rather than the Hamptons, and thus discover the Fort Wayne Museum of Art? No, the real story is better than that.

As an artist herself, she understood the struggles of all emerging artists and she felt beholden to use her wealth to help other artists advance their careers. So, she started a foundation committed to buying the work of emerging talents and donating it to up-and-coming art museums. Our Rivers’ painting, deemed an important work by several of her art savvy advisors who predicted it would launch his career, was donated in 1954. The painting was based on Courbet’s epic Burial At Ornans, which Rivers saw at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris on his first visit to Europe. His own grandmother had died just a few months before the trip and Rivers wanted to update Courbet’s depiction to make it personally relevant. The painting transformed his career in that it defined his commitment and maturity as an artist, and it was the first of his works to enter any museum collection. What’s more, major museums regularly ask to borrow our painting and curators at two major New York institutions have told me that they, not us, should really own this important work. This is, obviously, an argument with which I have no sympathy. We are forever in Gloria’s debt for her insightful pairing of this masterwork with our Museum.

A woman in a white dress with reddish-orange, cropped hair, sits in a chair at the window. On her left is a white cat and two yellow flowers in pots. A window, taking up three-quarters of the composition, frames her while the left side shows vines crawling up reddish-pink bricks.
Gloria Vanderbilt, American, 1924-2019. Open Window. Acrylic on canvas, 1965. On loan from Julianne Lassus and Jeanne Rowe, TD300. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The world knows much about Gloria Vanderbilt, her family, and her fortune. But, despite his fame in the art world, most people know little about Larry Rivers and his path to a significant place in the history of American art.

Rivers was born Yitzak Grossberg in the Bronx on August 17, 1923. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, Samuel and Sonya Grossberg, and played the piano as a child. When he reached his pre-teens, he switched to the saxophone and for the next 20 years he played professionally in jazz bands, even as his interest in the visual arts developed. His name was changed when a nightclub comedian introduced his group as “Larry Rivers and his Mudcats.”

After a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps, “Larry” was back on the road with his sax, playing a gig at a resort in my old stomping ground in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with a new band and a fresh outlook. By chance, the piano player’s wife, Jane Freilicher, was an art student in Manhattan who introduced him to her new friend, the abstract painter Nell Blaine. Blaine liked him immediately and loaned him a sketch pad to use in his off-time. She also encouraged both Jane and Larry to enroll in Hans Hofmann’s art school as soon as they got back to the city, which they both did after the band’s Maine Tour was over.

Hofmann’s legendary program was based on mastering the figure and then using it as the stepping point to full abstraction. Larry quickly established himself as one of Hofmann’s top students, but he refused to accept the idea that his figures had to turn into abstract forms. His interest was primarily in the narrative – telling a story – and his figures were the primary characters in each of his scenes. At the end of the year, he drifted from Hofmann’s school to NYU’s art program where he felt his interests found a better fit, and where he was befriended by other figurative painters like Al Leslie and Robert Goodnough who were not afraid of the abstract world’s ban on the human form.

Rivers managed to scrape together enough money for a trip to Europe, where he raced around looking at the work of every great painter, trying to absorb everything he could possibly learn from them. Nell Blaine was with him went he visited the Musee d’Orsay and saw Courbet’s famous picture, A Burial at Ornans. She remembers that “He was so moved by that painting…by the whole scene, but especially by the idea that the grave was in the foreground – the closest thing to the viewer.” As soon as the European trip ended, Rivers went straight into his studio and painted his version, The Burial. Fueled by the influence of Courbet’s painting, the expressionist brushwork of other European painters he had seen on his grand tour, and his own grandmother’s recent funeral, Rivers’ Burial was tremendously powerful and very well-received by the art world. The New York Times’ Meyer Schapiro loved the painting and convinced Gloria Vanderbilt to buy it for her foundation and donate it to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

The Burial was Rivers’ first institutional acquisition, and it launched his career. In this critically important painting, Rivers showed the world that he was both ready as an artist to engage the historical masters and to take on his contemporaries – a group that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and his former teacher Hans Hofmann. Interestingly, each of his competitors were initially figurative painters, and some, such as de Kooning, still valued the use of highly abstracted figures in their work. Rivers alone, however, clung to the idea that the figures in his paintings should remain whole and recognizable as a particular person. When de Kooning launched his bold and disturbing Woman series, with its lacerated forms and menacing grimaces, Rivers responded with his own Woman series. In stark contrast to de Kooning’s depersonalized, demonic forms, Rivers painted sensitively rendered portraits of the women in his life – other artists, his ex-wife, and his mother-in-law, among them.

Well aware of all that was going on around him in the New York art world, Rivers fought to maintain a professional distance from its seductive swirl. Personally, he struggled for independence from the social dramas that had distracted him since the dissolution of his early marriage and his increasing visibility in the New York scene. He had an almost insatiable desire for recognition and attention. He confessed that he was excited that “many of my new friends (both women and men) seemed to have a real desire for me.” These libidinous liaisons fed his ego but thoroughly complicated his already strained professional and personal life. He continuously burned the candle at both ends, was perpetually out of money, and he started losing his focus in the studio. Overwhelmed, he considered suicide, and it took considerable effort on the part of a few family members and close friends to buoy his spirits.

On a weekend recuperative trip out to a seaside village on Long Island, he felt enormous relief at being free from the scene back in Manhattan. He realized that he had reached a turning point in his career: to move forward as a serious artist, he would have to find a way to secure a home base in the country.

Rivers’ move to upstate New York re-energized him. Within a month, he was ready to prove, again, to the art world that he was serious about his work and an equal to any living painter. In his typical cocky style, he decided to create a major painting that focused on a subject that the art community would see as a national cliché – George Washington crossing the Delaware. The painting was a tremendous breakthrough that fused emotionalism and spontaneous brushwork to the logic of a well-planned narrative. More than anything else, it established that Larry Rivers was not afraid to wander into forbidden territory.

Intent on proving that to all those who doubted his artistic credibility, Rivers next painted a shocking series of nude portraits of his hefty and somewhat homely mother-in-law, depicted various foreign currencies (long before Warhol’s money paintings), designed the stage set for Frank O’Hara’s play “Try! Try!”, and appeared on a televised art game show, where his art historical knowledge earned him $32,000 in prize money.

Over the next 40 years, Rivers was a workhorse – a relentless experimenter who paintings paved the way for the entire Pop art movement, whether he intended to or not. Each decade brought him greater critical respect and his work is featured in the collections of every major museum in the country.

Rivers lived and worked with an intensity that rivalled most rock stars. Perhaps because he played every bit as hard as he worked, that intensity finally caught up with him and he died on August 14, 2002 of liver cancer in his home in Southampton, New York.

That day the art world lost one of the boldest, most creative artists of the late 20th century. As art critic Carrie Rickey wrote that August in the New York Times, “Larry Rivers wedded representation to abstraction, parodied art history, and anticipated all the concerns of the Pop artists”. Today, we all know just how right she was.

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