Jonathan D. Katz on Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers, Bread and Butter, 1974, color lithograph on paper, 14 ¼ x 17 ⅜ inches (36.2 x 44.1 cm). Collection of Laura Kramarsky & Mike Curtis. Art © Estate of Larry Rivers/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY / Photo: Peter Muscato
Larry Rivers, Bread and Butter, 1974, color lithograph on paper, 14 ¼ x 17 ⅜ inches (36.2 x 44.1 cm). Collection of Laura Kramarsky & Mike Curtis. Art © Estate of Larry Rivers/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY / Photo: Peter Muscato

Larry Rivers’s etching and screenprint Bread and Butter (1974) takes the form of a letter, with the obligatory “Dear” and “Sincerely” bracketing a slice of bread, a stick of butter, and the dotted line that we conventionally associate with missing words. The term “bread-and-butter letter” is a colloquial expression, now largely fading, for a thank-you note sent in return for hospitality—something that’s done as a matter of course, like putting butter on your bread. The words bread and butter together evoke the quotidian, but the image Rivers presents is anything but. A kind of rebus, but a performatively incomplete one, it enfolds images into, or more precisely onto, an epistolary format that irritates our desire for narrative closure. While we can read the image, we can’t really understand it, and we cannot attribute any definitive meaning to it beyond its curious literalization of an old-fashioned phrase.

But Bread and Butter is theoretically sophisticated beneath its Pop surface. If a bread-and-butter letter is a requisite social nicety, then in some sense what that letter declares is less significant than the fact of its delivery. Rivers’s image thus asks whether a bread-and-butter letter that merely illustrates the bread and the butter sufficiently functions to fulfill this social duty. In this sense, Rivers’s print is a latter-day meditation on Jasper Johns’s iconic flag painting, which similarly asks whether a painting of an American flag is ontologically akin to an authentic flag, provided that it, too, presents the requisite red, white, and blue palette in the appropriate design.

Rivers’s larger career has tended to fall outside the usual frames for understanding the development of American art. He was a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists but is more commonly regarded as part of a succeeding generation of Pop artists—this despite the fact that his first ostensibly Pop paintings date from the early ‘50s, a decade before Pop’s emergence. Rivers falls out of the frame stylistically, too, in that his work, especially early on, combined an Abstract Expressionist gestural brushiness with a realism so convincing it seemed to belong to another time. Rivers mingled two modes that were considered mortal enemies, a shotgun wedding through which he suggested that style was merely a means to an end—rather than the end itself, as it was then understood. Finally, Rivers parted company with his confederates in Abstract Expressionism by cultivating the ironic, jokey, dexterous patois of the largely gay circle surrounding his great friend and sometime lover Frank O’Hara.

O’Hara and Rivers were responsible for one of the great satires ever produced about Abstract Expressionism, particularly notable for having been written when the movement was in its prime. Their shared authorship of “How to Proceed in the Arts,” subtitled in mock seriousness, “A Detailed Study of the Creative Act,” resulted in a kind of post-Abstract Expressionist manifesto. Its repeated assaults on Abstract Expressionism from, as it were, within—the glib references to favorite buzz words, the undercutting of sacred tropes—served notice that what was once beleaguered had become the establishment. O’Hara and Rivers’s no-holds-barred satire took many of the most sacred precepts of Abstract Expressionism to task, such as the notion that if one is painting “in the moment,” then the picture should come forth holistically and spontaneously, and not as a matter of forethought, design, or calculation. Titled and conceived as a primer for avant-garde success, the article bears quoting in detail:

7. They say your walls should look no different than your work, but that is only a feeble prediction of the future. We know the ego is the true maker of history, and if it isn’t, it should be no concern of yours.
8. They say painting is action. We say remember your enemies and nurse the smallest insult….Be ready to admit that jealousy moves you more than art. They say action is painting. Well, it isn’t, and we all know Expressionism has moved to the suburbs.
9. If you are interested in schools, choose a school that is interested in you. Piero Della Francesca agrees with us when he says, “Schools are for fools.” We are too embarrassed to decide on the proper approach. However, this much we have observed: good or bad schools are insurance companies. Enter their offices and you are certain of a position….
13. Youth wants to burn the museums. We are in them–now what?…Embrace the Bourgeoisie. One hundred years of grinding our teeth have made us tired. How are we to fill the large empty canvas at the end of the large empty loft? You do have a loft, don’t you, man?
14. …We’re telling you to begin. Begin! Begin anywhere. Perhaps somewhere in the throat of your loud ass hole of a mother? O.K.? How about some red-orange globs mashed into your teacher’s daily and unbearable condescension. Try something that pricks the air out of a few popular semantic balloons; groping, essence, pure painting, flat, catalyst, crumb, and how do you feel about titles like “Innscape,” “Norway Nights and Suburbs,” “No. 188, 1959,” “Hey Mama Baby,” “Mondula,” or “Still Life with Nose”? Even it is a small painting, say six feet by nine feet, it is a start. If it is only as big as a postage stamp, call it a collage–but begin.1

In the face of the bombastic Sturm und Drang of ‘50s Abstract Expressionism, Rivers’s work was instead overtly domestic, featuring a rotating cast of his own family members, including his mother-in-law, Birdie, often depicted in the nude. Manifestly character studies, these domestic scenarios were joined by other works that ironized or undercut a great deal of the high seriousness of the art world at that time. For instance, many of the leading Abstract Expressionist artists gathered at a dive bar called the Cedar Tavern, where they drank heavily, fought often, and generally behaved rather differently from most assumptions regarding the private lives of those refined aesthetes we term artists. Rivers, in turn, made a painting called Cedar Bar Menu that punctured the mythic aura surrounding the tavern, pointing to the cheesy menu and, by extension, to the run-down, even squalid circumstances that obtained there.

By the late ‘50s, the deployment of text was a regular part of Rivers’s work, and such painting series as Lions on the Dreyfus Fund, or one comprising variations on the Camel cigarette package, underscored the inseparability of text within his art. Some paintings were even labeled as vocabulary lessons, offering the names for various parts of the human anatomy in, say, French, along with arrows pointing to the proper place on a nude figure. But the apogee of his work with language is arguably Stones, a lithographic series completed with Frank O’Hara, in which O’Hara’s poetry and Rivers’s imagery resonate in complex ways. Text began to play an even more significant role in a later series of highly politicized works that followed early clashes over the Civil Rights movement. For example, he made a painting with a black penis, a white penis, and a ruler—all of the same length—with text reading America’s No 1 Problem.

By the time he completed Bread and Butter, Rivers was viewed most centrally as a Pop artist, and the work betrays a Pop sensibility. But unlike other Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Rivers’s hand is always evident in his work—a gestural holdover from and a tribute to his complicated relationship with Abstract Expressionism.

1. Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers, “How to Proceed in the Arts,” Frank O’Hara Art Chronicles 1954-66:93, originally in Evergreen Review V, 19 (August 1961).

Larry Rivers Biography

Larry Rivers (b. 1923, Bronx, NY; d. 2002, Southampton, NY) enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps (1942), but was honorably discharged from the armed forces within a year. He briefly studied music theory and composition at the Juilliard School of Music, New York (1944). Rivers studied painting at Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts, New York (1947-48), and received his BA in art education from New York University (1951). His first solo exhibition was held at the Jane Street Gallery, New York (1949), and his work was shown nearly annually at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York from 1951 to 1961. The first of several retrospectives on Rivers’s work opened at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts (1965) and traveled to: Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, California; The Jewish Museum, New York; The Detroit Institute of Arts; and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. His work is represented by numerous museums around the world, including: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; the Dallas Museum of Art, Texas; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden; the Tate Gallery, London; the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City; and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Caracas. More information about his work can be found on
Jonathan D. Katz Biography
Jonathan D. Katz (b. 1958, St. Louis, MO) was the first full-time American academic to be tenured in the field of gay and lesbian studies. He founded and chaired both the Harvey Milk Institute, San Francisco, and the Queer Caucus for Art of the College Art Association. He co-founded Queer Nation, San Francisco, and the Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, Chicago. As an Associate Professor at Yale University, New Haven (2002-06), Katz was Founding Director of its Lesbian and Gay Studies Program. He has been the Terra Foundation Senior Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Katz co-curated the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which opened at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (2010), and traveled to The Brooklyn and Tacoma Museums. Hide/Seek received the Best National Museum Show Award (2011) from the International Association of Art Critics, and its accompanying book was voted the best LGBT non-fiction (2011) by the American Library Association. Katz currently directs the doctoral program in Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo, New York. He is completing two new books, Art, Eros and the Sixties, and The Silent Camp: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Cold War, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. His exhibition entitled Classical Nudes and the Making of Queer History is opening at the Leslie Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art, New York (2014), where Katz serves as President. His next major exhibition, ArtAIDSAmerica, opens at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (2015) and will travel to four other museums across the United States.