Daily Art Moment: Larry Rivers

An Outline of History, from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence, color lithograph and screen print on paper, 41 x 32 inches. A horizontal rectangular depiction of our country’s Founding Fathers, seen outlined in brightly colored silhouettes on a cream ground. The figures are grouped, seated and standing, in familiar poses seen in illustrations of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Each figure has a line radiating outward from it with some of the figures having a name in addition to the line. At left is the first grouping showing some figures seated in the foreground and others seated in the background. They are made up of outlines in green, blue, yellow, bright pink, brown and dark grey. The lines are smudged within the outlines to give the figures a shadow of color. Names attached to some of these figures are: Rob Morris, Benjamin Harrison, Elbridge Gerry, Roger Sherman, Thomas, Lynch and Benjamin Rush. The center group features several standing figures and one seated figure. They are Sam Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. The figures are outlined in burnt orange, green, pink, blue and brown. The last grouping at right, shows seated and standing figures in gray, purple and blue in front of a green figure seated at desk in the background near other figures in yellow and brown. These are labeled William Paca, Stephen Hopkins and Lewis Morris. The lower quarter of the print is a very pale green providing a base for the figures. The artist’s signature is at lower right.

Something about the diagrammatic silhouettes and obscured labels in Larry Rivers’s An Outline of History hit differently when I came across it in PAM’s Online Collections today. The shapes and composition are so familiar that I instantly recognized the moment in American history. Yet I still imagined a multitude of alternative narratives filling the negative space—from historic reality to convenient narratives. But what I find so powerful about this print is that by only giving us the shape of a memory, Rivers puts the onus on us, the viewers, to color in the lines with the complex, nuanced reality of the founding of this country. All the while, he uses playful colors to provoke a sort of optimism, acknowledging history while leaving space open for what could be.

Rachael Winter Durant, Head of Digital Assets & Collections Information Systems

Larry Rivers (American, 1923–2002). An Outline of History, from the “Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence,” 1975. Color lithograph and screenprint on paper. Gift of Lorillard, 76.4.10 © artist or other rights holder

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