Rivers Runs Through It

The lovers-and-friends-be-damned, tell-all autobiography is by now a cliche. There's hardly a fading celebrity at large these days whose every coitus and canker hasn't been admitted in print. Larry Rivers, who started out as a horny teenage saxophone player and ended up the horny old artist who helped pop art topple abstract expressionism as the house style of the New York avant-garde, tries to pass off his autobiography as a sex book that's really about art. The truth is, it's really about sex. It's also a pretty good read, if surprisingly depressing.

Rivers, born Yizroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx in 1925, says he achieved sexual congress with a velvet chair in his mother's house, several male poets and critics, a student who told him not to stop when she told him to stop and a welfare mother who tethered her waiting child to a couch. He says he attempted carnal union with his dog, his mother-in-law and a woman who lived in an abandoned bus. All of this-as well as fathering four children by two wives and a girlfriend-was accompanied by a long on-and-off affair with heroin.

Rivers's facile, fragmentary figure drawing looked startlingly good in the early 1960s: he dropped in deft stencil lettering and images he'd lifted from commercial art, such as Dutch Master Cigar boxes and Camel cigarette packs. His work still looks good. Rivers bucked the abstract tide of the 1950s and revivified figurative painting as serious modern art. But if he had anything resembling an artistic philosophy, it doesn't show up in this book. Probably because you can't get a philosophy drunk and try to go to bed with it.

The most irritating part of "What Did I Do?" concerns the intellectual supporting cast: the likes of critic Clement Greenberg, painter Helen Frankenthaler, poet Frank O'Hara, dealer John Bernard Myers and others. They, too, shaped the art world as we know it. But with Rivers describing mostly their partygoing, their drinking and their petty feuds, they seem more like bohemian wanna-bes than true eminences.

Nevertheless, Rivers and coauthor Arnold Weinstein manage to make the artist's story charming, in a warty sort of way. For instance: Rivers was once in love with the painter Jane Freilicher, who rejected him. He would stand outside her apartment house at night, watching for signs of her being with another man. "Spying," Rivers writes, "is the last of the no-lose systems: whatever you discover, you come out ahead. If you learn she is sleeping with someone, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you were right. If you find out you were wrong, well, she still loves you. I was right. Miserably right." Rivers's confessions are fueled by misery. In the end, he probably amuses us better than he did himself.