The greatest homosexual? Camp pleasure and the performative body of Larry Rivers

Gavin Butt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In an article entitled ‘Wonder Boy and his Many Sides’ which appeared in Life magazine in October 1958, the artist Larry Rivers is photographed in a quadrupled image of himself as jazz saxophonist, painter, sculptor, and ʼnightclub emcee’ (Plate 7.1).1 The performance of such diverse professional identities by a single individual provides the magazine with its novel and newsworthy angle on the popular image of the artist.2 It is Rivers as an exceptional ‘many-sided’ individual - his many ‘talents’, his many ‘lives’ - which earn him Plate 7.1 ‘Wonder Boy and His Many Sides,' in Life magazine, October 20, 1958, vol. 45, no. 16 pp. 100-1. Photograph by Peter Stackpole (courtesy of Katz Pictures) the appellation of art world ‘wonderboy’. That a single artist could be seen to have so many personae and, moreover, that he is able to ‘juggle them with such dexterity’, is what Life invites its readers to marvel at with ‘awe’. The photographic spread gives representational form to this noteworthy multiplicity by cleverly incorporating four different exposures on a single sheet of film, with Rivers adopting a different pose for each one. Thus Rivers’s many sides appear within the logic of photographic construction as the multiple exposures contained within a single, apparently seamless, image. Such professional ‘many-sidedness’ is seen by Life to have its aesthetic corollary in the ‘countless fragmentary images of people and objects’ in his paintings which, the magazine remarks, ' s eem as many-sided as the painter himself’. As a backdrop to Rivers’s performative photographic posing is his 1956 painting The Athlete’s Dream, which the article refers to as a portrayal of’two of his friends, glimpsed in elusive, shifting attitudes’. In this way both the photograph and the painting within the photograph, foreground the multiplicity of’Rivers’ in life and in art (or indeed as they co-mingle in Life).3 But just as Life appears to surface the performative discontinuity of ‘Rivers’ - either through the different personae of artist, saxophonist, compere, etc., or through the shifting definition of the subjects in his painting - it simultaneously attempts to unify them under the auspices of familiar art historical constructions of artistic authority. Even as ‘Rivers’ appears performatively mobile across different (at least quadruple) personae, he is also construed by the article as the centred author of such performances. Life defers to Rivers’s authorial voice in positioning them as exterior facets of an ' inner’ essential self, as outer expressions of some ‘deep’ (and deeply familiar) construction of artistic subjectivity: ' I think . . . in my life and my art’, Rivers is quoted as saying, ‘there’s a central Larry Rivers running through everything.'

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPerforming the Body/Performing the Text
EditorsAmelia Jones, Andrew Stephenson
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781134655946
ISBN (Print)9780415190596
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 1999
Externally publishedYes


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