When Emma Tamburlini was 11 years old, her father, the late Pop artist Larry Rivers, began videotaping her and her sister every six months, naked or topless, and talking about their budding breasts. He edited the footage into a 45-minute film about his daughters called “Growing.” Rivers planned to show “Growing” as part of an exhibition, but his wife, Clarice, who appears in the film with his other teenage daughter, Gwynne, stopped him. At 16 years old, Emma became anorexic. “It wrecked a lot of my life actually,” she says of her father’s filming.
Today, Emma Tamburlini is 43 years old and attempting to stop New York University from including “Growing” in an archive of her father’s artwork. NYU purchased all of Larry Rivers’ work from the Larry Rivers Foundation, which has refused in the past to destroy the tapes at Emma’s request. After buying the archive from the Larry Rivers Foundation for an undisclosed price, NYU has only pledged to keep “Growing” private throughout the daughters’ lifetimes but is still discussing how the matter should be handled. Emma Tamburlini and her mother believe the films should be returned to the family.By any measure, “Growing” is quite creepy. Larry Rivers tells his daughters to take off their clothes, zooms in on their breasts with the cameras, and asks them if boys have noticed them. But what’s even creepier is his coercive behavior: Emma Tamburlini said her father called her uptight and a bad daughter for resisting filming, and once told her “my intellectual development had been arrested.” That’s grade-A sexual predator behavior.
Indisputably, Larry Rivers is an artist: He appeared in a beatnik film with poet Allen Ginsberg, made a documentary with an Oscar-winning filmmaker, and has had numerous art shows. Still, Rivers seemed to think he could take a lot of liberties (in addition to filming “Growing”). In his memoir, Rivers writes that during his 40s he had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. Perhaps tellingly, his memoir also describes being sexually assaulted by a neighborhood boy when he was six.
NYU said it will take two years to catalog Larry Rivers’ archive. The dean of NYU’s library told The New York Times that the school believes the “reasonable privacy wishes” of a child should be respected and agreed “we can have conversations with all the interested parties about the handling of this material going forward.” One hopes they will do the right thing.
But the fact that the Larry Rivers Foundation refused to give the film back shows an unconscionable disrespect for the daughters. I don’t understand why “Growing” was never taken away by the FBI or something, considering the film is tantamount to child porn in the sense that it was filmed under coercion. The daughters were not adult women who chose to participate and then later changed their minds; they were children. Our bodies belong to us and no one else — and artists don’t get to make up their own rules and laws about that.