Larry Rivers: Boston Massacre

Nov 10 2020 to Apr 3 2021
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Larry Rivers, Red Coats – Mist from the series Boston Massacre, 1970, screenprint on paper.

In 1970—two hundred years after a street fight between Massachusetts colonists and British Redcoats escalated into a riot that left five Americans dead on King Street in Boston—artist Larry Rivers revisited this pivotal event. In his portfolio of thirteen mixed media prints, Rivers drew on historic imagery from Paul Revere’s 1770 engraving The Bloody Massacre to comment on the social, cultural, and political tumult gripping America in 1970. This includes protests over the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the death of African Americans at the hands of those in power. 

Rivers’ Boston Massacre series is fifty years old but remains strikingly relevant, particularly as it deals with struggles between colonial powers and the people they subjugate, and between the establishment and protestors seeking profound change. Lines of British Redcoats reference Revere’s historic engraving, but the artist substitutes news images of wounded and dead Vietnamese people for American casualties. He uses newspaper photographs of the civil rights leader James Meredith writhing in pain on the ground after being repeatedly shot while leading a peaceful walk in support of voting rights in 1966. He directly links this to an imagined portrait of Crispus Attucks, a young dockworker believed to be of African and Native American ancestry, who was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre. 

One of the most startling prints, Ready-Aim, features a white man pointing a shotgun directly at us, the viewers. The man seems to be standing guard over a series of European architectural monuments, symbols of the Old World. It calls to mind recent images of protestors and American monuments in Washington D.C., and elsewhere in the country.

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