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What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Biography.

Larry Rivers' title can be read two ways. Place the emphasis on "what" and the author is asking himself and the reader to judge his life. However, if the emphasis is shifted to the "I," then the title sounds like the whine of a bad child who tries to avoid punishment by asking, "What did I do?" Rivers wants the title read both ways: he wants to tell the reader the intimate details of his life, but he doesn't want to be held responsible for any of it.

The book purports to be "unauthorized," but like other works in this tell-all pseudogenre, it doesn't come close to telling all. He uses a pseudonym for one of his girlfriends. He probably uses others. This doesn't necessarily make the book a pack of lies, but it does raise questions about the meaning of the phrase "unauthorized biography." Clearly, he wants to offend some of his friends and to spare others. One wonders why Rivers periodically announces his compulsion to be honest. Is he trying to convince himself or us?

In his preface Rivers declares that he "handwrote everything" in the book, then revised it in collaboration with a close friend, the writer Arnold Weinstein. The result: a sweaty hyperventilated style. The reader who manages to stay interested through nearly 500 pages of this will learn who the author slept with (both men and women); that he fantasized about making love to his sister and tried it once with his dog; what drugs he took (mostly heroin and marijuana) and with whom (the jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, for one); who helped him buy his house in the Hamptons (the poet James Merrill); and how much he was paid for some of his paintings. By his reckoning, Rivers did just about everything--and through it all he kept score. He scored dope; he read music scores; and he rated the men and women he "scored" with, or wanted to. Scoring is what Rivers does best; perhaps it's all he knows how to do.

Rivers' observations about his lovers are pathetic and revealing: "Nothing I ever respected gave me a hard-on, which was a problem then and continues to be one." This problem is part of what lies behind Rivers' confessions about sleeping with men, something he keeps justifying and qualifying: "Except for one brief shining moment, I hardly ever made the first move toward a man, the lucky exception being a foggy, fat saxophonist. . . .I wanted to shock him." No doubt he also wants to shock the reader, but this macho honesty act gets tiresome. Rivers' tale is long-winded, peevish, and humorless--a deadly combination, especially in a book that is supposed to be insider gossip.

Rivers claims to have a prodigious memory for details, but the use to which he puts this total recall is selective and largely venal. His anecdotes of his friendship and affair with the poet Frank O'Hara suggest that he remains deeply jealous of O'Hara's deserved fame and wants to bring him down a notch or two: "Sex with Frank O'Hara--I'll spare you the details--was not very thrilling." Given all the other details he hasn't spared the reader, one is, I guess, supposed to admire his discretion. For many poets, however, Rivers is simply the guy who did the familiar heroic-ironic painting of O'Hara nude and wearing boots. This is what gnaws at Rivers: he is not always the most important person in the room.

This peevishness also extends to other artists. He states almost fondly, "I knew Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns from the time they came to New York in the early fifties, just out of Black Mountain College, where they studied under lovable, huggable, Franz 'the Gabber' Kline." Rivers' breezy recollection is a fantasy. Johns never went to Black Mountain, and either Rivers' memory took a vacation or he is acting pleasant in order to dish Johns: "He painted little boxes occupied by forms that alluded to Joseph Cornell and Franz Kline, and of course Marcel Duchamp. He coveted my opinion I guess because he heard of me before I heard of him. He felt a bit hurt that I didn't invite his opinions about my work." Given what happened later in their respective careers, this "incident," if it happened, must give Rivers a certain bitter satisfaction.

Rivers' problem is that he's like a person at a party who can't talk about anything but himself. An artist who made a handful of paintings in the early '50s that will probably be remembered as minor, he tells a self-centered story that never really gets anywhere. In this sense, Rivers' book accurately mirrors his career as an artist.

John Yau is a poet and critic. His forthcoming books are A.R. Penck (Abrams) and In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (Ecco).
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Author:Yau, John
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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