Brad Gooch: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

O'Hara and Rivers were both obsessed that season with the Russians. O'Hara's obsession was with Mayakovsky, who had so stridently declared that "The poet himself is the theme of his poetry" and "The city must take the place of nature," and from whom O'Hara had picked up what James Schuyler has described as "the intimate yell." (In a nasty swipe of a poem, "Answer to Voznesensky & Evtushenko," in 1963 O'Hara accused the Soviet poets of being "Mayakovsky's hat worn by a horse.") Rivers was busily reading War and Peace, about which John Myers grudgingly asked in a memoir: "And who got him to read War and Peace? Not Frank." Between Mayakovsky's "The Cloud in Trousers," O'Hara's "Second Avenue" and Tolstoy's War and Peace, the epic was in the air. So Rivers decided to make his own attempt at a large scale epic painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he has described as "like getting into the ring with Tolstoy." It was based on the original work by the nineteenth-century academic painter Emmanuel Leutze, a German-American sentimental realist known for the stage-set heroics in this tableau as well as in his mural decorations for the Capitol. O'Hara found the notion of updating this historic figure "hopelessly corny" until he saw the painting finished, his coming around later recorded in his 1955 poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Among the painters, however, the work--with its parodistic figure drawing--was a battle cry, thumbing its nose at Abstract Expressionism and pointing the way toward what would later become Pop Art. It was also quite revolutionary in dispensing with the lush brushwork of de Kooning in favor of thin, soaked washes. Rivers was sneered at in the Cedar, where Gandy Brodie, an abstract painter who had studied dance with Martha Graham, described him as a "phony" and one persnickety woman painter dubbed the new canvas Pascin Crossing the Delaware. The painting was a breakthrough for Rivers in finding his own breathing space in the increasingly claustrophobic crowd of young painters.

Meanwhile his relationship with O'Hara was becoming more difficult. O'Hara was making demands that Rivers felt were unreasonable. "He thought he wasn't putting pressure on me but he actually was," remembers Rivers of O'Hara's wanting to go home with him after a party "Like we'd be somewhere and I'd be enjoying myself. And he says, "Well, are we going?' Like meaning, 'Well is anything going to happen?' I wasn't in love in that sense."

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

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Criticism Overview
Title Brad Gooch: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Brad Gooch Criticism Target Frank O'Hara
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 May 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara
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