It is a paradox worth savoring that the painters closest in mood and temperament to the New York poets were not the makers of the abstract revolution but such "second generation" figures as Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Fairheld Porter, not one of them an abstract artist. To understand how the New York School of poets assimilated the influence of their painterly namesakes, we might linger for a moment over the differing ways in which a Rivers or a Porter responded to the avant-garde imperatives of the day. The example of Rivers was particularly crucial for O'Hara and Koch. Porter's example had a corresponding importance for Schuyler and Ashbery.
Born Yitzroch Grossberg in the Bronx, Rivers was an uninhibited, grass-smoking, sex-obsessed jazz saxophonist in his early twenties when he took up painting in 1945. His Bonnard-inspired early works made Clement Greenberg sit up and take notice. Though he would later modify his praise and then with- draw it altogether, Greenberg declared in 1949 that Rivers was already "a better composer of pictures than was Bonnard himself in many instances"—and this on the basis of Rivers's first one- man show. Rivers—who can, as I write this, still be heard playing the saxophone at the Knickerbocker Bar in New York City some Sunday nights—always retained the improvisatory ideal of jazz. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is evident in even his most monumental constructions—such as The History of the Russian Revotution (1965) in Washington's Hirshhorn Museum— which have a fresh air of spontaneity about them, as if they had just been assembled a few minutes ago.
Rivers relied on "charcoal drawing and rag wiping" for the deliberately unfinished look of his pictures. Also distinctive was his prankish sense of humor. In 1964 he painted a spoof of Jacques-Louis David's famous Napoleon in His Study (1812), the portrait of the emperor in the classic hand-in-jacket pose. Rivers's version, full of smudges and erasures, manages to be iconoclastic and idolatrous at once. The finishing touch is the painting's title: Rivers called it The Greatest Homosexual. A visitor to Rivers's Fourteenth Street studio in 1994, seeing a picture on the wall with the Napoleon motif in it, asked him why he had given the original painting its unusual title. "In those days I was carrying on with people in the gay bathhouse world," Rivers said. "Napoleon's pose was like, 'Get her!' Also, it was a kind of joke, since the art world at the time was primarily homosexual. And I had just read that Napoleon was a little peculiar. In St. Helena he used to be surrounded by an entourage of officers and he would take a bath in front of them, nude."
There is a strand of Rivers's work that can only be understood if you take into account the homosexual aestheticism that he found embodied in the poems and person of O'Hara. In the early 1950s, "queerdom was a country in which there was more fun," Rivers has said. "There was something about homosexuality that seemed too much, too gorgeous, too ripe. I later came to realize that there was something marvelous about it because it seemed to be pushing everything to its fullest point."
If one condition of avant-garde art is that it is ahead of its time, and another is that it proceeds from a maverick impulse and a contrary disposition, Rivers's vanguard status was assured from the moment when, in open apostasy, he audaciously made representational paintings. glorifying nostalgia and sentiment, while undercutting them with metropolitan irony. His paintings of brand labels, found objects, and pop icons—Camel cigarettes, Dutch Masters cigars, the menu at the Cedar Tavern in 1959,a French hundred-franc note—preceded Pop Art but eluded the limitations of that movement. And his pastiches of famous paintings of the past—such as his irreverent rendition of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953)—anticipated the breezy ironies of postmodernism without forfeiting the painterly touches of Abstract Expressionism. The painting, Rivers told O’Hara, "was just a way for me to stick my thumb out at other people. I suddenly carved a little corner for myself. Luckily for me I didn’t give a crap about what was going on at the time in New York painting. In fact, I was energetic and egomaniacal and, what is even more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something that no one in the New York art world could doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd. So, what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché?"
Rivers denied that his Washington Crossing the Delaware was specifically a parody of Emmanuel Leutze’s painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He maintained that his true inspiration derived from the patriotic grade school plays he had acted in or watched as a boy. This explanation made the picture no less heretical in an art world that had given up on representation and was bound to consider a patriotic theme as either hopelessly corny or retrograde. But for Rivers’s poet friends, the painting- -which the Museum of Modern Art purchased in 1955—was an electric charge. Kenneth Koch wrote a play, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which the father of our country is glorified with ironic hyperbole. And Frank O'Hara. in his poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers.s Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art," used the opportunity to state a "revolutionary" credo:
To be more revolutionary than a nun is our desire, to be secular and intimate as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile and pull the trigger.
It is conceivable that the "redcoat" O'Hara envisioned here coat of red paint. The gun in Rivers's hands, or in his own, the promise of freedom from dogma or domination:
Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.
from The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday, Inc.