May 09, 1977 12:00 PM

In his disheveled loft studio in lower Manhattan, Larry Rivers puts down his brushes and turns on an electric hair dryer. He aims it at the wet canvas. “Hey,” he calls out to his assistant, Rainer Groz, “Rembrandt would go out of his mind if he could see me now.”

More than 20 years have passed since Larry Rivers emerged as an enfant terrible of American painting. A master of improvisation, Rivers pioneered the use of folklore and housewares to convey his message before the birth of pop art. His variations on Washington Crossing the Delaware were harshly criticized as a mockery of a hallowed scene in American history. His portraits of his fat, aging mother-in-law in the nude outraged even avant-garde sensibilities.

During the 1960s Rivers’ flamboyant reputation waned. He squandered his energies on video films and multimedia experiments and embraced the drug culture. Then some 10 years later he gave up codeine for No-Cal soda and began to concentrate on painting again. Today, at 53, Rivers stands as a major figure in American art.

During a recent New York auction, Rivers’ paintings were resold at higher prices than ever before. His current canvases average around $24,000, and one commissioned work brought a quarter of a million. He paints seven hours a day and earns about $200,000 a year.

Pressures on him to produce more are increasing. In January an exhibition of his drawings at the Marlborough Gallery received the usual praise from the critics. The success of the show, which attracted more than 1,200 viewers to its opening, stimulated interest in the publication of his first book of drawings, as well as a spin-off exhibit in Paris. In June Rivers will mount a showing of his paintings in London and visit Israel to produce lithographs. Then in the fall Rivers moves on to India at the invitation of a collector “to make art in any way I want.”

When he finally returns to his New York studio, “it is possible that I may do Faye Dunaway’s portrait—but I’m not sure about her yet. We met at a party, and she started to tell me about myself. Of course, I was flattered,” he exclaims. “I didn’t know she even knew me. I told her that I was dying to do her portrait, and then I never got in touch with her. She probably thought it was all bullshit.” Rivers tilts his head and rolls his brown eyes. “Then I met her at a couple of other parties, and I really got to dig her. She’s kind of attractive, don’t you think? To be honest, I am not above using my art as a means of having an experience with her.”

Rivers is wearing tapered blue jeans and an ink-stained safari jacket with the belt twisted in back. He puts down the hair dryer and walks to a table filled with jars of paint, singing a refrain from a 1940s jazz tune. “Daddy-O,” he belts out, picking up a jar. “I’ve always suspected that this purple was inadequate.” With the intensity of a mad scientist, he begins to mix colors.

As he works, his conversation shifts abruptly into his second favorite subject—love in all its varieties. “You know,” he muses, “the problem is that most women never rate your performance in bed, so you don’t know if you’ve ever been wonderful. Oh, I figure if they come back I couldn’t be awful.” He pauses for reflection. “Why would anyone come back if I were really awful?”

Before him is a half-finished copy of Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider. Rivers went to see the original “five or six times” at New York’s Frick Collection. Then he invested “around five bucks” for a reproduction to study while he worked on his own version. “I plan to use everything in the original 17th-century painting except the face of the nobleman,” he explains. “Right now I think I am going to substitute my own face for the original one. You can say that I’m currently working on Rembrandt’s Jewish Rider.”

It is a Rivers shtik. His art often parodies a masterpiece with a joke, a technique that masks his own splendid draftsmanship. “People keep telling me to leave the one-liners to Woody Allen and stick to painting,” he says. “I’ve had a couple of heavy conversations with myself about it. I think, ‘Larry, Larry, Larry. Why are you doing it? Why don’t you just stop gagging? Why do you always have to have an edge which takes away from your own seriousness?’

“I am a serious painter. But I’m sort of afraid to admit it. I strive for certain technical effects, colors and spiritual nuances. In a sense, the real message is in the painting. The wit is only surface. When people dwell on it, I suspect they really don’t want to look beyond to the technical effects in the painting.

“I guess you could say that I’m always testing people,” he remarks casually, a throwaway insight. Then he wipes his aquiline nose with a finger, shifts his eyes wildly. He is impatient with his own self-analysis. “How can I tell you why I do it?” he asks and sighs. “It would take me five days on the couch to figure it out. I guess it’s just my personality.”

Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg’s rebellious personality began its development in the Bronx on Aug. 17, 1923. He was the oldest of three children, the only son of Samuel and Sonya Grossberg. His father, a generous spirit, was a plumber and owner of a small trucking company. He was also a celebrated violinist in his own living room. At the age of 7 Larry became his father’s accompanist at the piano. “After three years I dropped out of piano lessons and picked up the sax.”

While his father led the family musicales, Larry’s mother set the pace for everything else. Though loving, she had an unyielding sense of right and wrong which translated into overbearing authority. In reaction, Larry Grossberg became an early rebel. Around the neighborhood, he was known as that “nice wise guy.”

At 17 he ran off to play jazz at $140 a week in the Catskills. A political billboard for a “Judge Rivers” was the origin of the name Larry picked for the front of his music stand. His sax improvisations were interrupted by the Army Air Corps in 1942. “I wanted to be a bomber gunner,” he recalls, “until they showed me some of the bullets that might come my way.” He received a medical discharge when a sergeant noticed his left hand shook, the result of what was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. “It’s always done that whenever I concentrate on picking something up with it.” (The symptoms of the disease continue to be localized.) Rivers went to the Juilliard School of Music (Miles Davis was a classmate) and drifted back into the jazz world. He began to groove on hedonism while touring with the big bands of Shep Fields and Jerry Wald.

During the summer of 1945 he began taking walks in the Maine woods with the wife of a fellow musician. She was an underground painter. The two became involved in a colorful friendship which triggered Rivers’ unanticipated passion for art.

His mother had mourned his choice of jazz over law or medicine. Once he declared his intention of becoming an artist, she refused to speak to him altogether for years (while continuing to send food packages to his studio with his sister, Gerri). Other women were not as hostile, and several inspired and directed him. Nell Blaine, an artist who was a neighbor, suggested he enroll at the famed Hans Hofmann school. Later Rivers got a degree in art education at NYU.

Just before graduation the distinguished critic Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer Schapiro singled Rivers out as an “amazing beginner” in the vanguard of a new generation of artists in New York. Artist Willem de Kooning named Rivers as his favorite rebel. “The sensation I got from his work,” de Kooning wrote, “was like pushing my face in wet grass after being in a hothouse atmosphere for a long time.” In spite of all the praise that came his way, Rivers says, “My mother wasn’t convinced I would amount to anything until Gloria Vanderbilt bought one of my paintings.”

Throughout the 1950s, when the American art scene was coming of age, Rivers’ artistic experiments and his bo-hemian life-style brought him enormous attention. The latter was characterized by his hot pursuit of romance and lukewarm interest in two marriages. He and Augusta Burger, a secretary, were wed in late 1945. He lived with her barely two months before he went back on the road with a jazz band. After their son Steven was born, Rivers set up housekeeping in Southampton with stepson Joseph (from Augusta’s first marriage) and Birdie, his mother-in-law and favorite model. His best friend and his nude model, the poet Frank O’Hara, was around at the time too.

Sixteen years later Rivers married Clarice Price, a Welsh-born teacher of music and art and the mother of his daughters, Gwynne, 12, and Emma, 10. Although Rivers has not lived with Clarice for nine years, he supports the family and even cares for their hamster when they vacation at his house in Southampton.

At 1 p.m. he breaks away from his intense concentration for a lunch of broiled chicken and boiled cauliflower. He has given up the diet of the bon vivant—at least for the moment—and has opted for clean living. A few weeks earlier he put an ad in the SoHo News for an exercise instructor. Three men and two women applied. He insisted that each audition for the job, and then he hired both women. “I can use them for different purposes,” he explains.

After an hour of calisthenics on the floor, Rivers disappears into his bedroom. The headboard of his huge bed is in the shape of an ample bosom and male genitalia. The floor is littered with books on philosophy, serious fiction and pornography.

Throwing off his clothes, he sinks into a hot tub that sits on a raised platform in the far corner. When he emerges from the bedroom in a tiger-print bathrobe, he stops to schmooz with sister Gerri, who is his accountant. Then he greets Maria, a young art student who works for him as housekeeper and cook. “Hey,” he says, “you’re looking good.”

In an aside, he recalls, “When she first came, she hung back and observed me. Then finally after a week, she couldn’t help asking, ‘You get up every day and work in your studio. Is that all you do?’ I told her sometimes I go to lectures and try to pick up girls afterwards.”

Rivers squeezes oranges with a juice machine. “I mean, what else does an artist do?” he shouts theatrically. “Well, sometimes I do think to myself, ‘Larry, Larry, Larry, you’re getting on. Isn’t there something else besides your work?’ ”

He gulps down the juice in one swallow. “So I start to think about other things to do. But then I say, ‘Larry, you’re crazy. Crazy! What could be more exciting than a day spent with Rembrandt?’ ” He puts down the glass and heads for his studio, whistling.

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