By Ellen Frankman
The “grandfather of pop art” is the talk of the town once more this summer, just as the audacious and irreverent painter might have liked it.
Now in its sixth year, ArtHamptons kicks off on July 11 on the Sculpture Fields of Nova’s Ark in Bridgehampton in celebration of the Hamptons art community, its patrons and its artists. This year the annual art-buying event commemorates the late Larry Rivers. Rivers, who passed in 2002 at age 78, would have celebrated his 90th birthday this year.
The exhibit dedicated to Rivers is titled “Forty Feet of Fashion” and will feature Rivers’ fashion paintings done towards the end of his career. And of course, no Rivers exhibit is complete without legs. Attendees will enter the ArtHamptons Pavilion passing under one of the two sets of leg sculptures that Rivers completed in his lifetime.
“Larry Rivers is somebody who many people knew and nearly everyone has a Larry Rivers story,” said Rick Friedman, president of ArtHamptons. “The fact that we were able to get the legs and put them right out in the front of the entrance, it’s tongue and cheek and it’s fun.”
The original set of legs arose out of a mixed-media construction by the artist titled “Forty Feet of Fashion,” that Rivers was commissioned to build for Smith Haven Mall in 1969. The installation stretched across the width of the mall and was literally forty feet of floating lips, swimwear, watches, and a pair of 16-foot legs. The construction is defined by the presence of consumer goods, which had already become a tradition within the vein of Rivers’ work, and which were created using materials like vinyl, light bulbs and metal.
“Rivers appropriated images from popular culture and re-purposed found objects starting in the 1950s,” explained Eric Brown of the Tibor d’Nagy Gallery, the gallery representing the Larry Rivers Estate.
But the legs had not yet acquired their full artistic significance, nor were they then considered as provocative as they’ve since become.
“In the context of ‘Forty Feet of Fashion,’ the legs were more static and they were sort of in semi-profile as a way to display stockings,” said David Joel, director of the Larry Rivers Foundation.
“Forty Feet of Fashion” was eventually disassembled when another developer took over Smith Haven mall in 1985. Though Rivers was initially in talks to have the piece refurbished and donated to a museum, he was never able to come to an agreement with the new owners and the installation was essentially discarded aside from a few elements that Rivers salvaged, including the legs.
Those legs found a new home erected in front of Rivers’ studio in Southampton, where he spread their stride and encouraged visitors to pass under them. Rivers’ was commissioned to cast a second set of legs in 1994 that were purchased by a collector in Florida. The legs were later sold at auction to Ruth Vered and Janet Lehr of Sag Harbor where they have since drummed up controversy since being positioned outside of Vered and Lehr’s home.
The legs are the sole element of the original “Forty of Feet of Fashion” construction present at ArtHamptons, and tribute will instead focus on an exhibit of Rivers’ later fashion paintings, completed between the 1970s and 1990s.
“Larry’s fashion series was his last completed group of works,” said Brown. “They demonstrate the artist’s continued interest in appropriating images from pop culture, something he had been pursuing long before a growing list of younger artists.”
Rivers began his fashion paintings in the early 1960s, painting shoes and women with a pop-object representation of fashion. But Rivers later fashion paintings evoke a different side of Rivers, one at a farther remove from the over-the-top pop persona Rivers came to personify on the East End.
David Joel’s personal favorite from the collection is an oil on canvas piece titled “Taking to the Boards,” completed by Rivers in 2001, just a year before his death.
“You only see the lower half of the figure, you get the action, the emotion more than what you saw in those earlier pieces which I find very interesting from a man in his 70s,” said Joel. “Larry was still addressing that same issue of mortality the way he could, which is through youth and beauty. It is something he didn’t want to evoke in his early years.”
The later fashion pieces also distinguish themselves from Rivers’ 1969 conception of “Forty Feet of Fashion.” According to Joel, the models modeling swimwear in “Forty Feet of Fashion” look more like action figures than living breathing women.
“The models in the later pieces, we see their sexuality, we see their beauty, we see their youth,” said Joel. “The later fashion pieces are more inclusive of the process of life.”
The growth in Rivers’ work is also indicative of his evolution as an artist that is specific to the East End.
“Larry was one of the first important New York artists of the 1950s to move to the Hamptons,” said Brown. “He helped to establish a spirited and “democratic” artist community, where the artists of his generation worked and socialized side-by-side with major older painters like Willem de Kooning.”
Rivers both admired the giants of expressionism like de Kooning and Pollack, and openly criticized them, according to Joel, adding to the history of art in the Hamptons in his own right.
“Larry’s a very complicated figure in art history,” said Joel. “He is a very significant artist and a very influential artist and he’s a very misunderstood artist, but some of the most important works Larry made he made out here.”
Forty Feet of Fashion Sidebar
Of the original “Forty Feet of Fashion” construction created for Smith Haven Mall, a swimmer, diver and the legs were the only objects salvaged by Rivers before the work was dismantled. Those objects remain in storage at the site of the Larry Rivers Foundation in Water Mill, excluding the swimmer, which was sold sometime in 2011 by the Vered Gallery.
Now in its sixth year, ArtHamptons is an international fine arts fair held at the Sculpture Fields at Nova’s Ark in Bridgehampton. The event honors the work of regional artists, showcasing over 3,000 works from more than 500 artists. ArtHamptons kicks off with its opening preview on July 11 and runs until July 14. A portion of the proceeds benefits Guild Hall.
ArtMRKT is a contemporary and modern art fair representing 40 galleries from across the U.S. The event runs from July 11 to July 14 and will be housed in a large-scale structure on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Historical Society. This year, ArtMRKT will also play host to a curated group of New York food trucks, including Rickshaw Dumplings and Rubirosa.
Presented by Art Miami, Art Southampton is a contemporary and modern art fair that runs from July 25 to July 29. Art Southampton features 20th and 21st century art from more than 85 international art galleries and will be held in the 100,000 square foot Art Southampton pavilion on the 18 acres of estate property behind the Southampton Elks Lodge and adjacent to the Southampton Golf Club.