University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Larry Rivers

    Larry Rivers

    Larry Rivers was born in the United States, a son of Russian-Jewish parents. Rivers was a major member of the New York school of art beginning in the 1950s and was also a member of the avant-garde neo-DADA group FLUXUS, whose members included Yoko Ono. Most of Rivers' drawings and paintings reflected an expressionism with repetition of imagery and trompe l'oeil (deceives the eye) techniques, he was also influenced by modern Jewish history, that impelled him to do many drawings and paintings that reflected on this history and the Holocaust. Rivers died in 2002.

    Artist Statement

    A well-known New York artist raises questions of memory, how we remember, if we will remember, with Primo Levi as the key figure. Levi was from Turin, a chemist, who survived Auschwitz but was never the same. He was deported in 1944 when he was captured as a partisan and identified himself as a Jew. He committed suicide in 1987. Rivers uses an erasing technique in his drawing. Charcoal is particularly suited to the Holocaust as a medium, as it is a form of ash.

    "The greater part of the prisoners who did not understand German...died during the first ten to fifteen days after their arrival: at first glance, from hunger, cold, fatigue and disease; but after a more attentive examination, due to insufficient information. If they had been able to communicate with their more experienced companions, they would have been able to orient themselves better....Except for cases of pathological incapacity, one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful and easy way to the peace of others and oneself, because silence, the absence of signals, is itself a signal, but an ambiguous one, and ambiguity generates anxiety and suspicion. To say that it is impossible to communicate is false; one always can." - Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved

    Artworks: Witness and Legacy

    Primo Levi: Witness Drawing

    Primo Levi: Witness Drawing,1988 Pencil and color pencil on paper
    26 1/2 x 28 1/2

    Levi, a survivor from Turin, Italy, has written one of the strongest Holocaust memoirs, If This is A Man: Survival In Aushwitz, as well as poetry that deals with the horror of the Holocaust. He committed suicide in 1987.

    Primo Levi: Witness Drawing

    Primo Levi: Witness Drawing,1988 (detail) Pencil and color pencil on paper
    26 1/2 x 28 1/2

    River's drawing suggests the difficulty for survivors to tell their story of survival, given the unbelievability of the event. The artist is also suggesting the indelible images that cannot be removed from the survivor's mind-the massive death of Jewish children, and the omnipresent chimney of the crematorium.

    Larry Rivers Erasing the Past I

    Erasing the Past i,1986 Pencil and color pencil on paper
    26 1/2 x 28 1/2

    This image was used as a New York Times Magazine cover on November 16, 1986, accompaning a story about the Holocaust. In this drawing, the stars remain indelible, despite the erasure technique. Again, the artist, although not directly connected with the Holocaust, suggests the problems of memory, not only for victims, but all Jews. The Yellow Star was imposed on the Jews of Europe. Identification succeeded because non-Jews went along with it.

    Larry Rivers Erasing the Past II

    Erasing the Past II, 1987 Pencil and color pencil on paper
    26 1/2 x 28 1/2

    This image deals with a drawing of a Holocaust survivor from a photograph. However, Rivers manipulates the drawing to become a memory piece by erasing parts of the drawing. Note that this becomes a metaphor for the problems of Holocaust memory by survivors. The images from the past can never disappear; yet at the same time, the whole story cannot be told.

    Four Seasons at Birkenau

    Four Seasons at Birkenau
    Pencil and pastel on foam core.

    This image is derived from "The Auschwitz Album," with text written by Peter Hellman (New York, Random House, 1981) ISBN:0-394-51932-9. The album contains images from a photo album discovered by a concentration camp survivor of Auschwitz, showing thousands of Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, being 'selected' and processed for either the gas chambers or slave labor. This pareticular image depicted Jews waiting in a forest area. River's use of the photo raises the question of "authenticity" of image for those who have been fortunate enough not to go through the Holocaust, but who wish to make an artistic statement about it.

    Page updated 2013.