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

While some of O'Hara's poems are more pop camp and others more abstract, poems like 'Rhapsody' (O'Hara 1977a, p. 325) combine the two. This mixture of Pop Camp and Abstract Expressionism is also to be found in the work of Larry Rivers. Rivers worked on the edges of the New York School of painters who included Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Michael Goldberg, Norman Bluhm and Jane Freilicher. The close relationship between Rivers and O'Hara, and the way in which Rivers's work—like O'Hara's—combines abstract and representational modes, has already been well discussed by Marjorie Perloff (Perloff 1979). I want to argue that Rivers's work is in a similar relationship of 'complementary antagonism' to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Camp as O'Hara's. Rivers often used commercial images in his painting and was an important forerunner of Pop Art. However, like O'Hara, Rivers's work deviated from Pop Art. Hefen Harrison argues that Rivers differs from Pop Art, which 'comments on the social implications of standardization, mass dissemination of information, and the dehumanizing effects of modern culture'. What Rivers does have in common with the Pop Artists, Harrison argues, is to employ 'traditionally unacceptable raw material' (Harrison 1984, p. 48). Similarly, Libby suggests that 'While pop art flattens . . . Rivers discovers the radiance of ordinary things, imaginatively transforming them in ways that Williams would admire but Warhol might consider perversely romantic' (Libby 1990, p.134). Although these comparisons make a useful distinction, again they tend to underestimate the aestheticisation of the image within Pop Art.

In fact, 'pop camp' is also an important ingredient of Rivers's work, and this is shown not only in his inclusion of consumer goods but also in his parodic revisions of historical representations which are deeply ingrained in American popular culture. A good example of this kind of work is 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' (1953), an important 'repainting' of a traditional American icon, Leutze's painting of 'Washington Crossing The Delaware', which undermined the heroism, masculinity and patriotism of the original. The painting appeared the year after the Leutze was in the public eye in the celebrations for the 175th anniversary of the river crossing. At that time the Cold War and McCarthyism were at their height, and patriotism had become a national obsession. Rivers's painting undercuts the heroic Napoleonic stance of Washington in the Leutze and humanises it. Washington becomes only one of many going about their business; he seems isolated and his stance is much less heroic and purposeful than in the original. While seeming to buy into the sentiments of nationalism and patriotism, Rivers subverts them by taking Washington off his heroic pedestal. Rivers said of the painting:

The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging at the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose . . . What could have inspired him I’ll never know. What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn't picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics. (Davidson 1983, p. 74).

Conflicting readings, however, inhabit the painting, and it seems to be more ambiguous than critics sometimes allow. Does Washington really look as 'uncertain' as critics say? The deconstruction is all the more effective because the attitudes which are being questioned still have a presence within the painting, in the same way that they do within O'Hara's poems.

O'Hara responded to the painting with the poem, 'On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art'. This poem characterises Washington as afraid, gun-happy and a liar. He is the father of debatable notions about freedom which honour individualism rather than community. 'See how free we are! as a nation of persons.' In other words, the poem narrativises the painting further, implying, but not determining, trajectories of plot, character and past history.

 
 

from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Hazel Smith: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Hazel Smith Criticism Target Frank O'Hara
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 May 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media