Was artist Larry Rivers a sexual swashbuckler, breaking taboos and changing the way we think of the human body, or did some of his work have truly disturbing elements? Our latest Notable Narrative, “Crimes of the Art?” from Vanity Fair, considers the ethical mess surrounding video that Rivers shot in the late 1970s of his young daughters naked, and ponders questions of the artist’s accountability to vulnerable subjects and executors’ accountability to cultural history.
Rivers’ foundation, which includes members of his family, wants to preserve video they believe made a real contribution to his career. Rivers’ sons, who were subjects of nude portraits their father made when they were children, do not feel any line was crossed. His daughters were more adversely affected by their experiences, and one of them is fighting to have a video of her destroyed.
One problem in narrating sexual issues is that the reporting can easily devolve into he said-she said in the effort to determine what happened. In this case, however, the video evidence is recorded, and Rivers’ daughter Emma expressed her desire at the time not to participate. So the challenge is to understand the meaning or value of the video. In an effort to find that meaning, Vanity Fair contributor Michael Shnayerson talks to Rivers’ adult children, other relatives, friends, former lovers and studio hands.
Shnayerson doesn’t use deep, immersive narrative to tell the story. Instead, he skitters through several recent events, setting scenes at a gallery and Rivers’ studio, introducing Rivers’ daughters and the director of his foundation. He then moves back in time to recount the development of Rivers’ talent and the evolution of his complicated family, an ever-expanding group of lovers, children, musicians and artists. He layers quotes and images over each other in quick succession, letting one piece of information almost obscure another, even as it accumulates into something more revealing.
At one point Joan Gordon, who is Rivers’ sister and one of the executors of his estate, disagrees with Emma Rivers Tamburlini’s desire to destroy the video. But pondering whether he was an artist or a pedophile, she says he probably was “a little bit of both.” “Crimes of the Art?” evokes the anxiety attendant on the conscious destruction of art but does not shy from depicting the ugly side of trespassing on the intimacy of children.