Religion and art meet on canvas

When artist Larry Rivers painted the triptych mural "History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews," he had more than art on his mind.

"I decided I was entering my serious period, that I would do something on my people," said the painter, whose birth name is Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg. Rivers is sometimes known as the father of Pop Art for the seminal work he did with figurative imagery some four decades ago.

The three massive canvases, accompanied by preparatory drawings and text on view at the Skirball Cultural Center here, were painted as a commission some 15 years ago. They are replete with recognizable images of Jewish history from Moses through the 1920s.

The first looks at the biblical times, the second at European Jews, and the third at Jewish immigration to the United States. This show is only the fourth time the murals have been displayed publicly since they were completed.

Rivers said at the time that he felt his career "took a hit" for having gone off into history and personal biography, particularly using such specific, didactic imagery as Moses and Jewish immigrants coming to Ellis Island.

Indeed, reviews were mixed at the time. One critic praised the works for their wit and wisdom while another derided them as nothing more than illustrated books of Jewish history.

Times have changed. Today, the art world embraces the use of personal biography, in which easily understandable narratives stand as a statement of artistic identity. His work is finding a different audience, one that is more willing to entertain the idea that deeper meaning is still possible even if a work of art can be easily understood at first viewing.

It also raises questions that many in the art world have begun to take more seriously again in recent years, such as, what is the role of art in religious life? And what is the proper venue for showcasing a work of art?

"We're so conditioned to see art only in museums," says Donna DeSalvo, curator at large for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. "I'm always happy when I see something happen outside the standard museum," she says, pointing out that "the relationship between art and religion is longstanding."

The Skirball is devoted to showcasing aspects of Jewish life in America. According to director Nancy Berman, the show is not just about the Jewish experience, but about the essence of the American experience as well. "We've all been from somewhere else and had to go through these acculturation moments," she observes. "This painting talks not just about what ultimately happened to Jews in America, but what it was about America that allowed the Jews to flourish."

Rivers relied on Columbia University scholars for the historical details. He says that while he was not and still is not deeply involved in Jewish history or tradition, through the months-long process of finishing the murals, "I saw more relationships between the world and Judaism."

The artist came to prominence some 40 years ago, at a time when the art world was steeped in abstraction, led by the likes of Jackson Pollock. Rivers is credited with breaking from those ranks to use recognizable images from everyday life. By doing so, he laid the groundwork for Pop Art. Andy Warhol has said that Rivers led the way for his work.

Rivers has dealt with history and biography in previous works. His painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware," represents realistic techniques and attitudes that he continued to work on in "The Last Confederate Soldier." These concepts are behind the "Matzah" series, and Rivers's current project, "The History of Hollywood."

History painting had largely fallen by the wayside as modernism and abstraction have dominated the 20th century. But recent years, Skirball director Berman points out, have seen more art that relies on the politics of identity.

"People want to know who they are, where they came from," she says. More than ever, she adds, art is being called upon to feed that need.

*Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is

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