Tuesday, April 17, 2001

From the Archives: Larry Rivers at Lord & Taylor (April 17, 2001)

This is part of my "From the Archives" series, which consists of texts from e-mails I sent to friends describing my experiences at arts & literary events. I may have taken some small editorial liberties with these texts, and I have included related pictures and hyperlinks, but these are all BBB (Before BillyBlog). Remember, for me these events are enjoyable for two separate reasons: the love of art/poetry, and the mania for collecting. I am who I am. Enjoy!

The following is a recap of an event I attended on my lunch break, where the artist Larry Rivers was celebrating the launch of his relationship with Lord & Taylor Department stores. I went primarily to see Rivers due to his association with the New York School of Poets (Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, O'Hara) and it sounded like it would be a cool event. And, it was during working hours, so I could run over during a lunch break. No baby sitter required. Rivers died sixteen months after this event (New York Times obituary reprinted here). The poster below, from the event, depicts "Straps and Belts Can Make a Turban, 2001". This is, I believe, the only place on the web you can see this piece, at least based on my humble estimation.

I normally post these way back at the start of BillyBlog, in chronological order, but this one's an amazing little story, and quite funny too. The e-mail was sent to my friends Brian and Hubert. Brian was my mentor who taught me much about book signings and author events.

From: "Bill Cohen"
Subject: A Little Brian in all of Us
Date: Tue, 17 Apr 2001 13:44:10 -0400


Larry Rivers actually designed part of this collection for Lord & Taylor. Pretty funky. I get there at 12:05, 25 minutes early, and there's a jazz trio set up, playing bebop, Larry's in there somewhere as maybe two dozen L&T employees and people who think they're
important observe. And a line. A line of maybe 40 people, mostly septuagenarians and older, dabbled with rich New York City housewives.

I get in line, some old couple falls in behind me, the dude cracking awful unfunny jokes forever. No dealers in sight. I have come with a Lord & Taylor bag with pants bought at Lord & Taylor and an actual L&T receipt. Oops! How did that bag of books get in there?

12:30. Showtime. A muffled announcement from the front. Unintelligible, a woman with a L&T badge and a smirky smile weaves back....."In case you couldn't hear the announcement, Mr. Rivers will meet everyone and you can get a poster, but he will NOT be signing autographs."

Nobody around me seems to care. The old guy says he'll sign my poster for me. I think, well he might not be signing autographs, but he sure will sign a few books! A forlorn looking tall man comes back with a Larry Rivers coffee table book the size of Altadena, and speaks to his wife, several feet ahead of me. My eyes bore into the back of his head.

And so it goes. Creep creep. Larry's at a table with maybe thirty people hanging our watching. I formulate plan B (plan A, of course, is that he signs all 6 items I've brought with me). I prepare myself. Big book guy puts the book down in front of him, it looks like Larry is signing, but I can't
tell. The universe doesn't come crashing down.

It's my turn a few moments later when some pushy broad (the correct term in this case) cuts in front of me and starts hugging old Larry, who, by the way, don't look so hot, sorta trembly and frail, with hearing aid, etc. He gets up and says something to the band. She's still there. "Well I gotta meet all these people," he says to her dismissively, she backs off. The spotlight falls on me.

I step forward, raising the books in front of me. "Hello Mr. Rivers..."

"I'm not signing those books!" he says, gruffly. But I detect that he is distracted, perhaps
confused, and I am, after all Mr. Innocent.

In an uncanny move, that impressed even me, my Brian-honed signing mechanisms kicked in and I did the only thing I could to guarantee survival: I pretended I
didn't understand a word he said.

Meanwhile, his body was acting independently of his words. He picked up a sharpie pen (sorry Brian) that he had with him, and I said, "I just have two books (I didn't want to push it)."

[Note: My apology to Brian stems from Brian's mandate that books not be signed with Sharpies. He maintains that the ink bleeds more than other pens, and that it also fades faster than others, as well. This has not stopped authors from using them, however.]

Perhaps the curiosity factor kicked in, perhaps he was merely confused, I sensed tension around me, I was waiting for some cheery-cheeked nymphet to swoop in and cart me off to Security for harassing their guest.

"What's this?" he said, pen in hand.

"This is the David Lehman book about the New York School." [My selfishness revealed! I do

declare this to be one of the coolest books in my collection, as it is inscribed by Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, and signed by David Lehman, Jane Freilicher, and now, Larry Rivers "Rivers"]

"And this is...." he blank-signed the title page (not inscribed on the half-title as you [Brian] had desired) of Some American History, the June Jordan collaboration you [Brian] mentioned). I would have gone for the O'Haras too, but pushy woman had reinserted herself at the table with the poster for the event begging Larry to sign it for her. He kept saying "No autographs, no! I can't do it!" as the ink dried on my two freshly-signed books. I had to interrupt the poster girl t
o get a poster, as she was too caught up in the gentle argument unfolding at the table.

I fled, passing the big book guy who leered at me as I smiled sweetly back.

Success? Perhaps. A gentler soul would have faired much worse, but I justified it with the idea that if I'm going to stand in the lobby at Lord and Taylor during my lunch hour and listen to mediocre jazz played over a tinny sound system, I was going to get something out of it other than a poster and a fleeting memory of an aging artist seated behind a folding table.