Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York, New York
Purchased by Akron Art Institute (Museum), June 17, 1977
2015-2016: Haslinger galleries, 8/25/15 - 1/25/16, Akron Art Museum
2008-2009: Haslinger galleries, 7/27/08-12/13/09, Akron Art Museum
1997-1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97-1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1995: "Imagined and Observed: Representational Paintings and Drawings of the Past Five Decades" 4/29/95-10/15/95, Akron Art Museum
1993: "Selected Paintings from the Permanent Collection" 4/24/93-10/10/93, Akron Art Museum
1985: "Partners in Purchase: Ohio Museums and the NEA" 9/25/85-9/29/85, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH
Signed "Rivers '58" LR, recto
Lady from Panama Street, 1958
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Larry Rivers, a notoriously nonconformist painter, poet, printmaker, and sculptor, is one of the art world's true iconoclasts. A successful artist for over forty years, Rivers's critical reception has fluctuated between acceptance and rejection, perhaps more a comment on the artist’s rocky personal history than a fair assessment of his art. Born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, the artist raised his two sons with his ex-wife's mother; won $32,000 on the scandal-wracked television program The $64,000 Dollar Question; and in the conservative 1950s, publicly discussed his suicidal tendencies, addiction to heroin, and homosexual relationships.
Describing Rivers's persona in the 1950s, poet Frank O’Hara wrote that he was "rather like a demented telephone . . . nobody knew whether they wanted it in the library, the kitchen or the toilet, but it was electric.”1 Despite his unconventional stance and remarkable aptitude for agitating his critics, Rivers built an important bridge between 1950s Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists of the early 1960s. His loose, expressionistic style echoed the painterly touch of Abstract Expressionism, but his inclusion of mass media imagery and recognizable forms, especially the human figure, was viewed as a radical (and by some as a regressive) departure from the avant-garde. Lady from Panama Street, with its calligraphic surface, is a striking example of Rivers’s unusual technique developed in the 1950s of merging painting and drawing.
Rivers's interdisciplinary approach has also made him difficult to pigeonhole. Clearly, his involvement with other disciplines has informed his approach to making art. Rivers collaborated with poets O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashberry; wrote articles on contemporary art; experimented with film and video; and remains a dedicated jazz saxophonist. His wide-ranging interests and ability to synthesize elements from the visual, literary, and performing arts contribute to his distinctive style.
In Lady from Panama Street, the figure, both in finished and unfinished form, appears tentative, dissolving almost before it begins, not unlike a time-lapse exposure in film. Pencil-like markings, visible under alternately thin and dense washes of pigment, form the composition's foundation. Translucent passages of color, delicately painted, suggest a lyrical, musical structure. Indeed jazz, with its "anti-establishment ideology, inventive variations on well-known themes and firm rhythmic structure supporting daring improvisation," is an apt analogy for Rivers's style.2
Primarily a portrait painter, the artist traditionally focuses on familiar surroundings, using friends, family, and acquaintances as models. As his reputation escalated in the 1950s, Rivers was increasingly solicited for his talents as a portraitist. Lady from Panama Street, despite its nonspecific title, is one such example. Claude Rains, star of 1940s and 1950s motion picture classics including Casablanca and Notorious, commissioned Rivers to paint this portrait as a gift for his fourth wife. Upon receiving it, the actor's spouse rejected her portrait, claiming it resembled her sister more than herself. As Rivers blithely recalled, "she returned it to my dealer and took something else. Because you can't sell a portrait of one person to someone else, we changed the name to Lady from Panama Street."3
Lady from Panama Street, with its staccato-painted surface, is at once specific and generic, a painting and a sketch. It possesses an ephemeral quality that echoes in the artist's refusal to commit to absolutes. Anchoring all of his work, however, and integral to Lady from Panama Street, has been Rivers's commitment to draftsmanship. As he affirmed in a 1954 conversation with fellow artist Fairfield Porter, "Drawing, which ties everything into a picture, [is] the most thrilling part of painting and one which I feel most sure about."4
- Jeffrey Grove, 2001
1. Frank O'Hara, "A Memoir," in Larry Rivers (Boston: Brandeis University, 1965), 11.
2. Helen A. Harrison, "Larry Rivers," in Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove, 1996), 431.
3. Larry Rivers in conversation with the author, July 8, 1997.
4. Fairfield Porter, "Rivers Paints a Picture," ARTnews 52 (January 1954): 82.
Harrison, Helen A. Larry Rivers. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Hunter, Sam. Larry Rivers. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.
Rivers, Larry, with Arnold Weinstein. What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.