by Elizabeth Kapp
Larry Rivers’s 1970 series Boston Massacre was created to mark the bicentennial of the infamous event. The 1770 skirmish that resulted in five civilian deaths rocked the thirteen colonies, quickly becoming a rallying cry and the means of encouraging support for the revolutionary cause. Throughout the artistic series, Rivers uses this canonical American historic event to provoke connections to the Vietnam War, which was raging as the works were created. Through his use of emblematic imagery and multimedia process, Rivers communicates the hypocritical nature of armed conflict, specifically that of the the Vietnam War, and reveals the complex relationship between subject matter and multiplying perspectives that accrue around major historical events.
The Boston Massacre series began as plans for two murals for the New England Merchants National Bank of Boston in 1968. The bank itself is “located on the hallowed grounds of the Boston Massacre”; the physical location of the mural was connected directly to its subject. Rivers describes the resulting mural as “a visual mixture of British soldiers shooting some complaining British-Americans who turn out to be Vietnamese and civil rights activists.” The Boston Massacre series was created two years later, and the works are based on these earlier representations. The series is composed of several screen prints featuring collage elements. Three of the lithographs are included in the Five College Museum collections. Redcoats was on display in the 2017 exhibition Body Language at the University Museum of Contemporary Art. The remaining two works, Ready, Aim and Victims, are in the collection of Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
The subject matter of Redcoats is easy to recognize – the archetypal redcoats are immediately familiar to American viewers, and are understood to represent not only the British armed forces, but also the established military presence of a distant government; the scene of several redcoats evokes the British military’s efforts to subdue this local, revolutionary fervor in their American colonies.
The cursory forms that occupy the lower sections of the work suggest the artist’s initial compositional sketch. The depiction of the soldiers is fragmentary; not only are they not entirely colored in, but the figures are indefinite. The physical figures of the depicted individuals are composed primarily from drawn lines that suggest form. And yet, even with this abbreviated structure, the shapes communicate the military subject. This use of drawing reveals the ambiguous nature of the subject matter. The truncated figures establish the lack of identity of the individual soldier, suggesting that individual soldiers are dispensable. The depicted figures need not be “fully” depicted to communicate their message. The image of the row of armed redcoats ready to fire a volley—as they aim their muskets directly at the viewer—is so effective that a full rendition is superfluous.
The combined mixed media of Redcoats embellishes the work and gives its potential message greater complexity. Red paper suggesting cloth adds to the composition as part of the red coats of the soldiers. This not only echoes the title, but also enhances the subject matter: redcoats have become synonymous with the British military and framed negatively in American tradition as imperial forces. Rivers also cut reflective silver paper to the shape of the soldier’s drawn boots and added the cutouts to parts of the composition. These additions evoke a deeper meaning: the redcoats were the better-supplied and funded force within the American Revolution, full of “spit and polish,” with shiny buttons and crimson red coats. In this way, Rivers firmly associates the image of control and authority with the image of violence—yet also alludes to the role of superficiality and spectacle in the practice of power.
None of the figures are identical to one another within the composition. While they are all visually related, not one is a direct copy of another. The redcoat soldiers stand in a row, overlapping one another. Every figure appears made from the same template, with right elbow cocked, taking aim, and ready to fire. Yet each is slightly different. Some boots are gray, some coats have a bit of red; each soldier is slightly distinct, but remains a part of the mass of military might. This visual technique again makes us question distinct identity within a larger governmental organization, such as the military. Are these figures traces of one another, simply copies of depictions of the British military from historical sources, as Rivers did with several other works? For instance, for his depiction of the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte in The Greatest Homosexual, the artist used the original 1812 painting by Jacques-Louis David as a foundation for his “camp” commentary. Are these traced figures drawing parallels between the presence of the British military in Boston to the presence of American troops in Vietnam? Or are each of these soldiers a distinct mark from one another, entirely unique and utterly original?
Only one face is marked with color, drawing our attention to a single countenance shaded a campy pink. The presence of this one pink visage compels us to fill in the blanks with our own identifications with or against the rest of the vacant expressions. The larger picture becomes more critical than the identity of one single face.
The three folds in the work suggest the lithograph’s potential setup as a vertical diorama, in which the work would surround the viewer with four panels, giving the Redcoats an even more ominous perspective even as it suggests a toy or theatrical scenario. The three-dimensional aspect of the work would add to the emotional delivery and give the subject matter a radically different impact. If the work were displayed as designed, the threatening aim of the redcoats would surround the viewer, inserting us into the direct line of all of the raised guns. Surrounded by the arms of the redcoats, we would have no refuge from the violence, paralleling the vulnerability of the crowds from the Boston Massacre that had no escape from the oncoming volleys. Yet we would also experience the scene more playfully, as a participant in a war game—perhaps becoming more aware of the position of the average soldier as a pawn in a larger power play.
The depiction of the several redcoats all aiming in single file has compelling parallels to Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre. There are also key differences between the two works. Revere’s engraving is much less naturalistic and the figures are much more caricatural, whereas Rivers depicts the soldiers in an upfront, relatively naturalistic style derived from the academic and Neoclassical drawing tradition. While we are a mere spectator of the historical skirmish for Revere’s small engraving, moreover, we become a virtual participant in Redcoats, standing in the line of fire.
Ready, Aim, part of the Boston Massacre series by Larry Rivers, is in the collection of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. The theme of the series continues with this imposing composition. A man is depicted extremely close up, aiming directly at the onlooker. He is delineated by scribbled outlines, so individual characteristics are difficult to discern, but his eyes remain uncannily naturalistic. The man’s left eye stares directly out at the us, his right eye replaced with the barrel of the rifle, aiming and ready to fire.
Rivers labeled the background to the composition twice with the phrases “in Europe” with an arrow pointing to the architecture at left, and “Meanwhile in Europe” at right. The location is reinforced by the variety of European architectural styles and images of the Alps. The armed man acts as a hindrance to our gaze; he is not only physically blocking us from entering the compositional space but also life-sized, as if he were right in front of us. The (nearly) single pink shade of the man and his cursory outline further isolates him from the detailed and colorful background. This gunner therefore definitively separates the observer from Europe, appearing as the violent protector of its power. The radical lack of detail in the man’s body, the extreme foreground of the composition, makes demands on us as viewers, leaving much to be interpreted.
The edges of the cuffs of the man’s sleeves are delineated in vibrant crimson. Is he a redcoat? This would be understandable, since he appears to be guarding Europe, preventing us from entering. The lack of detail suggests an ambiguous time period. Unlike in Redcoats, this male figure has no head covering. Does this speak to his lack of identity or a lack of responsibility? Is this man, who actively threatens us, just doing his job? Closer study reveals that the man’s coat is not actually red, but rather his shirt sleeves. Could he have blood on his hands? The crimson color is only communicated by two curving lines; through these lines a plethora of possibilities appears, making the work much more abstract than traditional news depictions such as the Revere engraving.
Other similarities appear, however, in this work between Paul Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre from 1770 and Rivers’s series of the same title. In the 18th century engraving, the bloody scene of civilian casualty is enclosed in the background by a series of drawn buildings, including the recognizable Old State House that remains in Boston today. The engraving was reproduced and reprinted in several papers, spreading the revolutionary fervor and becoming a recognizable image just after the massacre. In Ready Aim, the figure is flanked on either side by analogous buildings, distinctive as historical European facades. The buildings in both Rivers’ work as well as the historical prototype recall 18th century engravings. Engraving was historically important for dispensing information to the masses. Etchings like Paul Revere’s image began as drawings that were then cut into a plate and printed, in order to reach wider audiences in a more ephemeral form.
Historically, the engraving technique reflects the ability of the news of the Boston Massacre to spread through the Colonies and incite a revolution. This historic role of the imagery informs the lithographs that comprise the Boston Massacre series. As a set of lithographs, many copies of each work have been made. This parallels the repetitive nature of the engraving process used in Paul Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre. However, due to the mixed media elements in Larry Rivers’ Boston Massacre series, each work is also individualized.
Victims, part of the collection of Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, is another work from the Boston Massacre series. The work draws upon contemporary depictions of “victims,” using images from news stories depicting struggling Vietnamese people. The man in the lower right corner carries a wounded individual; while a violent altercation takes place in the lower left corner. Above this at the left edge is a distorted depiction of an individual lying on his side, presumably dead based on the awkward position of the body. At lower center lies a man depicted in sketchy lines, without much detail. Floating above these depictions is the distorted form of another wounded man on his back, knees in the air, seemingly with two mirrored heads. Depicted in cursory lines, the anatomy of this figure remains unclear. It appears like a conglomerate of human and cloud, removed from the other depictions. The cloud-like shape also recalls the gun smoke in the Revere engraving. Each of the figures is repeated within the composition on a smaller and partially removed scale, as seen with the large central figures, which feature abbreviated doppelgängers above and to the right them. This repetition further questions the concept originality – which depiction came first? Is each body, moreover, truly unique, or yet another faceless victim?
The two main horizontal figures also recall Revere’s Boston Massacre engraving. While only one figure appears deceased in Victims, the helpless body language of both reclining men directly parallels the two horizontal figures in Revere’s depiction, both of whom are wounded or dead. Paul Revere’s engraving of the tragic event quickly became the icon of the American Revolutionary cause, transforming into the symbol of Britain’s aggressions against the colonies. Rivers strengthens this connection to the dissemination of the violence of colonial oppression in the media through his repeated use of newspaper photos. While the practice of copying depictions became easier during the 200 years between Revere and Rivers due to technological advancements—to the point where distinctions between real and copy begin to break down in the digital age—the result was comparable for these two depictions. Images are imbued with power by the surrounding context and by the viewers, transforming the images into symbols.
The works demand contemplation of the issues of colonial identity and nationalism related to the events depicted. Rivers draws parallels between the American Colonies’ struggle for a voice against their ruling government and the conflict in Vietnam. Rivers draws an analogy between the British army that perpetrated the Boston Massacre and the American military that was invading Vietnam. He questions the purpose and reasoning behind the US involvement in the Southeast Asian conflict. Rivers’s work speaks to the irony of the United States representing itself as the outside aggressor in Vietnam while remembering the British as the colonial oppressors during the Boston Massacre. The parallels between the two conflicts some 200 years apart is striking. Rivers’s print makes evident how journalistic reporting has evolved over the centuries, but the need for journalism remains.
The series brings viewers directly into the compositions, with pointed guns and oversized victims from which we cannot turn away; there is no refuge from the violence. This was true for the historically depicted skirmish with the Boston Massacre victims mowed down by the fire, but also for the Vietnam War. The identity of the “real” victim is also up for discussion. Conscripted American men were forced to participate in these wars more or less without choice. All soldiers in Vietnam were vulnerable due to the use of Agent Orange, the deforesting agent that was prevalent during the conflict. The word “massacre” also brings to mind the Mỹ Lai Massacre that occurred in 1968 during the Vietnam War, two years before the series was created. That incident, involving the death of hundreds of civilians at the hands of the U.S. military and a subsequent cover-up, raised significant questions about authority, responsibility, and the true purpose of the conflict. It was also a pivotal historic event in American history, helping to turn public opinion against the war.
Questions of authorship are critical within the Boston Massacre series. Rivers directly uses previously existing depictions, whether historical paintings of British soldiers or photographs of Vietnamese civilians and civil rights protestors. While the prints are, moreover, nearly identical copies of one another, the mixed media elements that Rivers added to Redcoats individualizes each piece and makes it truly unique. Every version of Redcoats may have the same elements placed in the same locations, but the literal pieces of fabric and paper are different in each version. Therefore, the distinction between original and copy is further blurred. This issue of originality is a theme in Rivers’ work. This question of originality also plagues Revere’s engraving, from which much of this series was inspired. The engraving was in fact based on a work by another artist named Henry Pelham. This image directly inspired by Pelham’s work was then copied, printed, and spread, reworked and redistributed innumerable times. Rivers’s use of repeated images of soldiers and architecture calls attention to the mass media’s role in distributing images and making questions of originality and authorship increasingly complex.
The series Boston Massacre by Larry Rivers, which encompasses Redcoat as well as Ready, Aim and Victims, questions the distinction between the original event and later imaginings of it. The juxtaposition of journalistic imagery, references to historical depictions, and artist’s rendering within the scene pushes us to question the representation of history and the image of power. The combination of historical imagery with contemporary drawing and printing leaves us to ponder the continued use of historical representation as a filter for contemporary interpretation.
Butt, Gavin. “How New York queered the idea of modern art.” In Varieties of Modernism, edited by Paul Wood, 315-337. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Fitz, Karsten. “Commemorating Crispus Attucks: Visual Memory and the Representations of the Boston Massacre, 1770-1857.” American Studies 50 (2005): 463-484.
Levy, David C., Barbara Rose, and Jacquelyn Days Serwer. Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Co.), 2002.
Newman, Michael. “The Marks, Traces, and Gestures of Drawing.” In The stage of drawing: gesture and act, edited by Avis Newman, 93-105. London: Tate Collection, 2003.
Rivers, Larry. Some (Visual) Thoughts on the Boston Massacre (Marlborough Graphics) 1970.
Rivers, Larry, and Arnold Weinstein. What Did I Do? (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 1992.
 David C. Levy, Barbara Rose, and Jacquelyn Days Serwer, Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2002), 177.
 Larry Rivers, and Arnold Weinstein, What Did I Do? (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 476.
 Gavin Butt, “How New York queered the idea of modern art,” in Varieties of Modernism, ed. Paul Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 329.
 Karsten Fitz, “Commemorating Crispus Attucks: Visual Memory and the Representations of the Boston Massacre, 1770-1857,” American Studies 50 (2005), 466.