Larry Rivers (1923-2002)
Property from the Collection of Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill
Larry Rivers (1923-2002)

The Next to Last Confederate Soldier

Larry Rivers (1923-2002)
The Next to Last Confederate Soldier
inscribed 'John B Salling' (upper edge); signed, inscribed and dated 'From Weill's for "Next to Last Civil War Vet" Rivers '59' (on the frame)
oil on canvas
62 1/4 x 44 3/8 in. (158.1 x 112.7 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, circa 1959
F. O'Hara, "Larry Rivers: The Next to Last Confederate Soldier" B.H. Friedman, ed., School of New York: Some Younger Artists, New York, 1959, pp. 60-65 (illustrated).
R. Brautigan, A Confederate General from Big Sur, New York, 1964 (illustrated on the front cover).
F. O'Hara, "Larry Rivers: The Next to Last Confederate Soldier" D. Allen, ed., Frank O'Hara: Standing Still and Walking in New York, San Francisco, 1983, pp. 95-96.
S. Hunter, Larry Rivers, Barcelona, 1989, pp. 74, 77 and 346, no. 17 (illustrated).
M. Mattix, Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of Saying 'I', Madison, 2011, pp. 69-70.
Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Arts Festival; Indianapolis, John Herron Art Institute; Tallahassee, Florida State University Gallery; Watch Hill, Rhode Island, Holiday Art Center; Kent State University, Van Deusen Gallery; Atlanta Public Library and Aurora, New York, Wells College, Some Young American Artists, February 1960-March 1961, no. 25.
Waltham, Brandeis University, The Rose Art Museum; The Pasadena Art Museum; New York, The Jewish Museum; The Detroit Institute of Arts and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Larry Rivers, April 1965-February 1966, p. 50, no. 36.
New York, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Larry Rivers 1950s/1960s, May-July 2009.

Brought to you by

Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

A consummate observer, Rivers studied the ways in which stories are told. He was fascinated by mass-circulation imagery and contemporary views on historical events. In The Next to Last Confederate Soldier, he melds together American history, mass media and popular culture into one striking work. Made the same year as The Last Civil War Veteran, a piece widely regarded as one of Rivers’s most seminal works and housed in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this painting represents the start of one of the artist’s most celebrated art inquiry series.
Here, Rivers renders a portrait of John B. Salling, a confederate soldier, which he based on a photograph that first appeared in Life magazine at the tail end of the 1950’s. Salling has been loosely rendered against the background of the confederate flag by the use of a few well-placed lines and various swatches of color suggesting the medals and ribbons of a decorated war veteran. True to Rivers’s expressive and painterly style, evidence of the artist’s hand can be seen in everything from the broad strokes and wide splashes of color, to the freehand elements that punctuate the portrait, creating a sense of form and dimension.
Salling was thought to be the second to last remaining confederate soldier and Rivers was drawn to the subject for its sentimental and patriotic narrative potential. Shortly after the Life article was published a story broke about the death of a man by the name of Mr. Walter Williams who claimed to be the last Civil War veteran. He was buried with the honors despite the later realization that the next to last might actually have been the last. The whole story appealed to Rivers’s quick wit, humor, and interest in the anonymous and often incorrect registration of events associated with mass-circulation imagery. Despite being sourced from, and billed as, a tribute to the soldier John B. Salling, the handling of the figure in The Next to Last Confederate Soldier seems to suggest a type rather than an individual. In his essay dedicated to the work, poet Frank O’Hara commented, “The Soldier’s fluctuation between figurative absence and abstract presence comes from an adamant attachment to substance, which is its source of energy. That is all, no identity. In his work Rivers is playing out, at whatever cost to himself, the drama of our lack” (F. O’Hara, “Larry Rivers: The Next to Last Confederate Soldier.” Standing Still and Walking in New York. Bolinas, 1975, p. 76). It is fitting, considering Rivers’ interest in the mislabeling of the last surviving veteran and rewritten histories in general that he would make that lack of identity the true subject of the work. He reinforces that it is the headline that is substantive. Something that is only noteworthy in its uniqueness is rendered meaningless by the fact that this last soldier could seemingly be anyone. In this way the blank faced soldier becomes generic mass media iconography.
The Next to Last Confederate Soldier was the first in what became one of River’s best known series. Later that year he painted The Last Civil War Veteran; the name itself jokingly getting at the lack of accuracy, even by supposedly credible sources, and the idea of finality. Much of what Rivers was doing at the time – in spoofs of historical paintings, such as his cheeky interpretation of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953) – had to do with inaccuracies and attempts at rewriting history in ways that challenge prevailing accounts. Already familiar with the subversion of image and technique, he found that the Life magazine veteran features suited him well. It was The Next to Last Confederate Soldier that sparked his inspiration to play with the concept of doctored history and legacy using repeated iconography and language. Widely recognized as one of the first artists to uniquely combine representational, narrative art with the non-objective and abstract, River’s central theme throughout his early career in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was history and the way we tell it.
Painting at a time when patriotic themes were out of fashion and considered hopelessly corny or regressive, River’s work proceeded from the maverick impulse and contrary disposition that characterizes avant-garde art. In an often cited excerpt from the book Popism Andy Warhol is quoted recognizing Rivers inimitably provocative persona as being a catalyst in the development of the Pop Art movement, “Larry’s painting style was unique – it wasn’t Abstract Expressionism and it wasn’t Pop, it fell into the period between. But his personality was very Pop” (A. Warhol, Andy and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol 60’s, New York, 1980). In the face of Abstract Expressionism, he produced paintings that would almost have appeared old-fashioned and academic if it weren’t for the air of spontaneity and humor with which they were redolent. What might have otherwise seemed superficially like a glorification of nostalgia and sentiment was undercut with irony and commercial imagery. A forerunner of Pop Art, he was interested in blending intimate personal histories with off-the-rack realities and repeatedly rewritten histories.

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Morning Session

View All
View All