The Staller Center Art Gallery hosts renowned artist Larry Rivers’ work. (Nina Lin)

What is art through the lens of a musician, film director, actor or a nightclub’s emcee? This month, you can find an answer at the Staller Center for the Arts’ “Larry Rivers: Collaboration and Appropriation” exhibit.

Born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, the artist who created the exhibit’s artwork was active through much of the 20th century, and he led a controversial life filled with heroin and a variety of women, according to a “The New York Times” article. He carried that same experimental spirit into his artwork. As a pioneer, he broke the limitation of style by merging figurative art, which depicts the reality, and juxtaposed it with abstraction.

“Larry could paint really quickly,” David Joel, the director of Larry Rivers Foundation, said. It is estimated that the unusually prolific Rivers created more than 3,500 pieces. His art influenced many minds of the next era, including, most significantly, Andy Warhol, who openly admitted this inspiration, according to the Larry Rivers Foundation website.

Rivers’s subjects range from personal encounters with friends and pop culture film stars to solemn topics such as the Russian Revolution and the plight of Jews in Europe.

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Rivers’s multiple personalities and multi-talentedness make him hard to categorize; “The New York Times” recently had an article touting him as “an artist with a musician’s ear for duets.” One of the best examples of this is his lithographic series entitled “Stones.” In this collaboration with Frank O’Hara, he drew upon his experiences as an improv jazz saxophonist at the Juliard School by engaging in a dialogue between himself and the poet solely through images and words. There was a lot of collaboration between the two, and it would have been filled with intellectual tension. As Helen Harrison, the curator of the exhibit, puts it, “much as jazz soloists take cues and improvise” upon one another.

The first piece that catches people’s attention as they enter the gallery is Modernist Times (1988), in which Charlie Chaplin tripped over the abstract mechanical wheels as he usually would in the working class scenes in the movies. Just like how people now craze over the remix of a radio hit, Rivers based this piece on Fernand Léger’s inspiration in the film “Modern Times.”

Rivers doesn’t just pay homages to predecessors like Gogh, Max Ernst, and Matisse, rather, he completely reinterprets them. For example, the torment of Van Gogh was vividly portrayed with chairs dangling all over his head in “Art and the Artist: Chairs and Van Gogh.” The naked dancing humans by Matisse were created with new hues of colors—bold, romantic red and professional, navy, blue fitting to metropolitan taste.

A nonconforming master cannot be respected without criticism as well. According to an article in “Vanity Fair,” it comes in the form of the documentary, Growing, which centered on his topless adolescent daughters, not included in the exhibit. However, his other experimental films, “A Day in the Life of a Cleaning Woman” and “Mounting Tensions” are screened continuously in the gallery.

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Although Rivers passed away in 2002 at the age of 78, his interactive piece continues to invite students to participate in a colloquy with him. For those who wish to be endowed in his enigma, the exhibit runs until Dec. 8, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday, and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

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