‘It’s fascinating to have a retrospective,” says artist Frank Rivera in the center of his gallery-white studio, located on the third floor of the plain white Hightstown house that he shares with his wife of nearly 50 years, Anne.
The space bears testimony to the artist’s deliberate and precise style: clear work tables with storage below, walls showing the balanced placements of paintings (tightly wrapped in clear plastic and waiting to be moved), neat lines of stacked wrapped art, and the sign over the American Gothic-style window: “Eat Sleep Paint.”
Then there’s the easel with the 2011 painting “Pillow Fight,” in which a soft-colored and seemingly padded vortex is the scene of descending airplanes and rising human figures.
The 75-year-old artist — well known in the region for a career as an art instructor at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) and a frequent exhibitor both here and abroad — gestures to the room and paintings and says, “This is my life.” Smiling, he says, “And I see these themed connections going all the way back.”
The exhibition’s “says-it-all” title shows just how far back: “Frank Rivera, a Retrospective: Selected Works, 1944-2015.”
The exhibition of more than 70 works officially opens at the MCCC’s art gallery with a reception Wednesday, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. It will be on view through Friday, April 3.
The works are a record of a time, an artist’s passage through several major American art movements, the finding of a voice, and the persistence of recurring themes.
“I grew up during World War II, and my father was in the Navy in the Pacific theater. My mother would send him letters, and I would send pictures,” he says about his early urge to draw. “A kid can’t write, but he wants to communicate with his father, so he draws something. It’s art before written language. I think that’s the way many artists begin.”
One of show’s early images, “Dogfight,” depicts airplanes in assertive — and transcendent — action. The pencil drawing on an envelope fragment provides an entry into Rivera’s family and visual themes. “My mother and father were archivists. They saved everything. I am very lucky,” Rivera says.
“I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Then my family moved to Ashtabula, Pennsylvaniam, a little town mentioned in a Bob Dylan song. I loved that. My father was a factory worker for a small motors manufacturer. My mother was a homemaker. I had one sister. My mother’s brother went to art school briefly. He was in Cleveland and went to Copper Art School, a night school for GIs. He gave me some of his art school books when I was a kid. I found it kind of interesting.”
Rivera adds that visits to family members in New York City included a visit to the Metropolitan Museum, where he found a calling. “Art chooses you; it sort of selects you. I realized that there was this future out there, and it was my passion.”
The object that cast a spell that was to return again and again was the perdella, the small decorative panels used on ancient Catholic altar pieces, and now echoed by the rows of small paintings. “There were two things about them. One was that they were highly crafted and meticulous renderings and modeling, smooth passages of shading, details, technical brushwork, and varnish finish. Yet more important was the narrative. You had serial art, a story board. It moved into the possibility of moving a story along. Yet it was historical, 14th and 15th century, way before comic books,” he says.
Rivera says that he may have been drawn to the religious art because of his maternal grandmother, who lived with his family during the war.
“My grandmother was Sicilian. She married my grandfather, who also was Sicilian, but his family was French. She had all the votive candles and creches. She was also a sort of superstitious woman and believed in a paranormal world. She believed in both good and evil, like voodoo curses. If you were cursed, she’d fix it for you. She told me all these odd stories. It was a big influence on me,” he says. In the exhibition’s artist’s statement he adds that her stories of fireballs passing through window glass and shadows unfolding in spectral colors “ignited the imagination of a young child.”
Rivera attended the well-regarded Cleveland Institute of Art, where his studies and artistic skills resulted in an unexpected opportunity. “Yale University had a kind of farm league. They had scouts out for the Yale Summer School, a prep school for Yale University. Their scout came and picked me. I did well and was invited.”
Rivera says that Yale was filled with “luminaries” and notes that classmates included sculptor Richard Serra and painter Bryce Martin and that he studied with sculptor Robert Engman, all known for their minimal-abstraction, a style that Rivera too had adopted.
He graduated from Yale in 1962 and joined the Michigan State College faculty, which included abstract painter Charles Pollack, Jackson’s oldest brother. “He was the important guy there,” says Rivera.
Another influential art figure whom Rivera met at Michigan was the art critic Clement Greenberg, who championed abstract expressionism and painting uninfluenced by politics or the commercial art market. Rivera followed Greenberg’s counsel, left Michigan in 1964, and went to Paris to work and make gallery connections that continued for decades.
He also encountered something unexpected: a notice from the draft board that his student exception was about to expire. He quickly returned to the United States, moved to the East Coast, enrolled in the master program at the University of Pennsylvania, and studied with abstract artist Angelo Savelli (known for his pure and image-free monochromes).
From the mid-1960s through 1980 Rivera rooted himself in New York City, where be painted, participated in gallery shows (including the Whitney Biennial), worked as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, and, in 1967 joined the faculty of the newly established Mercer County Community College.
It was then that he began commuting to downtown Trenton, the college’s location prior to its West Windsor campus. His teaching career — which included introducing digital art to the college — ended when he retired in 2003.
Rivera says that during those New York years he absorbed a number of art influences and created a body of abstract works. That includes “Sonny and Cher.” Featured in the show, the 1965 painting, about two feet tall and 18 inches wide, is an austere chilly-white non-objective work — a diptych with faintly defined planes that force the viewer to place a mental image of the two singers in the two empty spaces (a type of perdella without figures or narrative). A large abstract exploration of white covering a large portion of Rivera’s downstairs hallway attests to his dedication to the minimalist style.
In 1980, when he moved to Hightstown, Rivera says he experienced a type of personal renaissance or reawakening. It was one that connected him with his early inspiration: narrative expression and the connection to the perdella.
“I was unsatisfied with abstraction,” he says. “I needed to have subject matter. I wanted to tell a story. I need to unravel, create a stage production in a sense, hire actors, and have it scripted. It needed to be figurative. It wasn’t enough to have a smear of color or some biomorphic shape that could be interpreted by whoever is looking at it. I needed to have a protagonist walk through it like a dream and playhouse. The only way to do that is to have figures.”
Rivera says the process of abandoning the vogue and prevalent art dictums and moving from non-objective abstraction to the use of the figures was easier thought than done. “I had a real struggle. I couldn’t go from big abstract paintings to these small surrealist paintings. So I did the boxes.”
The boxes are handsomely fashioned with smooth dark wood, like vintage radios. One side is opaque to allow light to enter. Another has a lens, a peephole that invites one to gaze into the interior and discover both figure and intent. Inside one are miniature sculptures: two gleaming yellow airplanes (or fireballs). They are the artist’s tangible return to impulse and image.
Rivera says that he spent months creating and filling miniature chambers with figures that had previously engaged him — cars, airplanes, boats — before he returned to painting. “I found my way back via the boxes,” he says. “It’s like a lucid dream, only you can enter it. That blew me away. Once I got through that I could paint again.”
He likens the new figure-driven paintings to surreal narratives. “Sometimes it’s a story board, four frames and a horizontal track. Sometimes it’s like inserts, kind of like pop-up menus on a computer. In a sense it’s very modern, yet it turns the clock back to the perdella, which is 14th century.”
An additional change was in size. Small works (sometimes just 3 inches by 4 inches) replaced larger canvases for a new desired effect. “I think the key word is intimacy,” Rivera says. “I wanted paintings that you can walk up to and hold like playing cards, and feel like they belong to you. Smallness doesn’t mean that you’re losing anything. You’re getting a lot.”
Thinking about how these newer paintings connected him to the images and themes that brought him into art in the first place, Rivera says, “It felt very good to come back home.”
Then there was his embrace of color. “I’m a colorist. I think a lot about color. I think of them as flavors. Orange is a tangerine. Then there’s lime and cream,” he says. It is a point that artist and Maryland Institute College of Art professor of fine art Dan Dudrow touches on in his introduction to the exhibition’s catalog: “Color is, and always has been, one of his secret weapons, vastly enriching the imagery but rarely calling attention to itself.”
Instead the finely applied comic-book hued colors slyly prod the eye, especially in the many paintings of double images (previously suggested in “Sonny and Cher” and later manifesting in works such as “Liar/Liar”). Often the artist orchestrates his tones to reverse patterns, shapes, or backgrounds.
“I don’t know exactly where (the process) comes from. It’s kind of a game, like the kind you see in a magazine and try to find the differences. It forces the spectators to decode and puts them in the play,” he says. He adds, in an artist’s statement, “Nothing has been more important than this pairing of opposites. The process is compulsive.”
True to the theater-like approach to painting, Rivera began creating recurring characters that appear in his works, including his mid-1980s character Blind Voyeur. The figure that hijacks cars, airplanes, and boats is “the embodiment of two opposites” and “might be a stand-in for one of those visionary accounts first heard at my grandmother’s knee; and — like her — his first among clairvoyants,” he says.
Other figures also began to appear, including performing dogs, sprinters, and jumpers, some inspired by Rivera’s work with computer graphics. “They move in a world of imagine dangers — of fire drills and false alarms. It is a world of many moving parts where objects, furnishing, and props pretend to be what they are not,” he writes.
Eventually he says he began to increase the number of images, adding three or four panels, and introduced ironic contrasts between panels or subjects scrambling through time — both linear and not. The images “often double back on each other, expanding the narrative while confounding it.”
While concepts and themes are interesting, the realization of the work is what opens the dialogue. To meet that end Rivera — who creates only five or six pieces per year — works in a manner Dudrow calls “almost monastic,” adding that “his process is meticulous but not fussy. He believes in going the distance with each painting, whatever that requires, even months of focused labor that must at times feel like mowing a lawn with a pair of scissors.”
Elsewhere “his images are an ongoing, ever-evolving, ever-expanding history of dreams — and the real achievement is that each projection of a dream-state becomes universal. There is a vivid sense of recognition,” notes Dudrow.
Rivera accesses his output since the 1980s as around 200 serious works, noting that he destroyed pieces that he felt were deficient, and looks forward to the exhibition at the college that he helped develop. “I have a certain loyalty to the college and long history with them. The place is right. I really wanted to see my work in that kind of exhibition space, out of the studio. This is the way we learn.”
Living a life of an artist and a father of two practicing artists — his daughter Clea is a professional actor, his son David a painter — also provides a learning experience, one that allows him to see the plight of a new generation of artists who can become distracted in finding their way.
“I think contemporary art has gotten itself locked into something like the March fashion show. Whatever is hot this year will not be hot next year. You can’t follow too closely because you will be chasing rainbows. I don’t think art needs to be codified. Art needs to represent a man or woman’s soul. There is certainly no ‘how’ to get there,” Rivera says.
About his own detours to maintaining his vision and a recent decision to rent a second space in New York City’s Chelsea area, Rivera says “I was moved by the events of the days. I was impressionable and came under the influence of big shadows. Then I had my epiphany and found my voice.”
When the viewer steps into the center of the gallery, the voice will use more than one picture to speak thousands of words.
Frank Rivera, a Retrospective: Selected Works, 1944-2015, Mercer County Community College Gallery, West Windsor. Opening reception, Wednesday, March 11, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Through Friday, April 3, Mondays to Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 609-570-3589 or www.mccc.edu/community_gallery.shtml.