Color me surprised

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“Boston Massacre” by Larry Rivers, 1970 (Photo from legendaryauctions.com)

The Boston Massacre was many things: violent, extreme, inciting, maybe even a little blown out of proportion. What doesn’t come to mind when thinking about the Boston Massacre – or really any massacre, for that matter – is the word colorful. When a whole lot of death is involved, color isn’t people’s first concern.  And the hues that do come to mind are not too cheerful: a lovely snow white tinged with blood red and mud brown.

When I turned the corner of the Harn – the museum I interned at last year – for the first time in months, I was sucked in by the bold screenprints splashed across the wall under the words “Boston Massacre.” There were greens and pinks and blues, all neon everything. Color layered on color topped with guns. Every figure, with sketch marks left for all to see, was proudly equipped with a weapon. Some leisurely held their firearms to the side, some led the way with their bayonets in the air, and others left me staring straight down the barrel.

It was a jarring juxtaposition – the cheery colors and the cold cruelty of the soldiers. The technique screamed Warhol, and I was taken aback that I had never seen the pieces before, fairly certain I had, at one point or another, gotten my hands on most things the man had made in his lifetime.

Turns out that the artist responsible was Larry Rivers. Somehow, combing galleries and museums and the dark recesses of the Internet for contemporary art had never led me in his direction. Still, it only took glancing at his work and the year to realize he’d been quite the inspiration to my beloved Warhol, which a little research confirmed.

Rivers was a mid-20th century painter stuck somewhere between abstract expressionism and the beginnings of pop. His pieces throw together the historic and the modern. The last Civil War veteran is captured in bold, abstracted planes of color. Men in old-fashioned Dutch attire are juxtaposed with a Dutch Masters cigar box. In much of his work, the colors are far more muted than in his Boston Massacre series. But somehow, Rivers knew. For the Boston Massacre, the bold colors make sense.

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“Boston Massacre” by Larry Rivers, 1970 (Photo from: liveauctioneers.com)

The bright backgrounds contrast with simple drawings of men and guns to demonstrate the intensity of the event. Most of the men are featureless, mere shapes with splotches of color and a few lines to indicate their form. They’re not important. What’s relevant is the graphic result of the arguably minimal event. These five dead men made a huge impact, and by surrounding them with neon colors, Rivers shows the bold effects they had on the formation of America, despite their anonymity.

It’s times like this that keep me hooked on museums. On a random Wednesday, I wandered into a place I thought I knew every inch of and left madly in love. There’s nothing quite like it, I thought, scribbling “Larry Rivers” on my palm with the guestbook pen. I then promptly shoved my hand deep into my blazer as I walked out into the bipolar Florida air, the reminder of a new collection of works to explore pulsing in my pocket.

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