In Larry Rivers’ White Camel (1980) (Lot 330), even the title is both ominous and strangely serene, like the greatest Humphrey Bogart desert melodrama never made. There is the obvious Warholian pop association with a recognizable brand, but where Warhol and his disciples both mock and revel in the vivid garishness of mass advertising, Rivers famously goes the other way with this painting: these are lovely, tasteful colors. The pyramid and palm trees are a muted tobacco gold, the pillar to the left is a tasteful 80s salmon, and the Camel logo itself is mostly rubbed away for fear of being too obvious, and what remains is a soothing, haunted blue. This is a cigarette ad you can hang over your couch, or in your child’s nursery; even the crumpled foil at the top of the cigarette box looks like pretty wrapping paper flowing from a gift bag.
And yet, as all the imagery peacefully wipes itself away, erasing its sins into the white sands of time, we the beholders are drawn into Rivers’ inherent sense of bright, impending death. The tranquil hues and art school-perfect renderings are but ghoulish contrasts to the specter of the cigarette makers’ then-current practice of advertising its lovable cartoon camel to small children, and to all the loved ones ripped from us by those elegant white tubes.
Larry Rivers’ White Camel is a superb example of one of the more accomplished art series of its era. While Warhol was obsessed with making variations on the exact same image, Rivers instead created a seemingly endless stream of strikingly different treatments of those nefarious Camel ads. The scope and quality of Rivers’ attack on the ultimate oral fixation is all-too-literally breathtaking.
Speaking of corny segues, and while we’re on the subject of taking one’s breath away…