By Carter B. Horsley
James Rosenquist is the whirling
dervish of Pop Art, spinning and spewing out incongruous collections
of images that smack of banality and surprise with almost catacylsmic
This traveling exhibition,
which started at the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts,
Houston, and went to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York
and then to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, is huge, which is in
keeping with the artist's beginnings as a billboard painter. It
is accompanied by a humongous catalogue that is more dazzling
and sumptuous than the exhibition.
For many, Rosenquist's early
work, which won him reknown, will be nostalgic and a fine recollection
of the fabulous 60s. For others, however, his later work will
be much more interesting and demonstrate that he was far from
being just a 15-second, one-note trick pony. Indeed, whereas his
early work was marked by jarring and simplistic, however resonant,
juxtapositions, much of his later work has something of a cosmic
force with effectively bold compositions.
The paintings themselves are
a bit disappointing given their absence of painterly touches and
huge scale, but one is awed by his technical skills and mightily
impressed by his intellectuality. We are smacked in the face by
the blatant commerciality of his commentaries on advertising and
at the same time inspired to conjure derivative images ourselves.
Rosenquist's best work is provocative in the best sense.
In his catalogue preface, Thomas
Krens, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, provides
the following commentary:
"Since the late 1950s,
James Rosenquist has been creating an exceptional and consistently
intriguing body of work. His oeuvre is a clear demonstration of
a gifted artist's pursuit of a unique aesthetic path that also
reveals larger truths about the surrounding culture....As a commercial
artist painting billboards in the 1950s, Rosenquist was witness
to and absorbed the advertising media's powerful mechanisms of
influence. Executing vast advertisements high above the crossroads
of the world in Times Square, he learned firsthand how to distinguish
the media from the message and how to frame the differences. In
1960, he turned away from commercial art and, channeling aspects
of that experience, focused on his fine-art career. Through shifts
in scale and content, Rosenquist reformulated photographs and
advertising imagery from popular magazines into a kaleidoscope
of compelling and enigmatic narratives on canvas....Rosenquist's
work has poignantly registered social and political concerns and
reflected upon the dynamics of modern capitalist culture - an
ongoing critique tht reached its first zenith with the monumental
F-111 (1964-65). Superimposing images of consumer products,
an underwater diver, a doll-faced child, and an atomic explosion
along the fuselage of an F-111 bomber plane, the work illustrated
the connection between America's booming postwar economy and what
President Eisenhower characterized as the miltiary-industrial
complex....Inspired by the possibility of a new work as far-reaching
and significant as F-111, I began talks in 1996 with the
artist about a commission for the Deutsche Guggenhim Berlin. In
response, Rosenquist created the monumental and vibrant three-painting
suite The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997-98), the first
work commissioned for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and a centerpiece
of the collection."
The Deutsche Bank is one of
three major sponsors of this exhibition and Dr. Tessen von Heydebreck,
a director of the bank, providing the following commentary in
his sponsor's statement:
"Rosenquist creates his
work with paint that he mixes by hand and applies with a paintbrush.
These techniques may be seen as antiquated or old-fashioned in
the age of media art, but Rosenquist...continues to challenge
In his audience with novel and remarkable imagery that remains
on the vanguard. We believe Rosenquist's objective has been to
create dynamic artworks, which, in intensity of color and size,
spatially embrace and emotionally engage their audience. Yet,
Rosenquist's artistic achievement fascinates beyond its formal
brilliance, as his work reflects a critical interest in social
and political issues the world over."
In his sponsor's statement,
Bruno Salzer, the chairman and CEO of Hugo Boss, said that "We
at HUGO BOSS are fortunate to have worked on a very special project
with James Rosenquist: the production of an edition of 250 'Rosenquist'
paper suits, which were designed as reproductions of the famous
brown-paper suit that had been tailored for the artist in 1966."
Delta Airlines is the third
major sponsor of the show.
Some of Rosenquist's earliest
paintings hold up extremely well. "Astor Victoria,"
for example, is an extremely fine abstract composition. A billboard
enamel and oil on canvas, it measures 5 feet 7 inches by 6 feet
10 1/2 inches. Executed in 1959, it is in the collection of the
In his catalogue essay, "Connoisseur of
the Inexplicable," Walter Hopps provides the following commentary:
"James Rosenquist was born on November
29, 1933, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, at the Deaconness Hospital,
which later became the Happy Dragon Chinese Restaurant. He spent
much of his childhood in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Ohio, often
in farming communities, and to this day refers to himself as a
farm boy who just happened to become an artist. He keeps a tractor
on his property in Aripeka, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico....One
of Rosenquist's aunts made marionettes and model airplanes with
him, and his mother wqsan amateur painter, whose work hung in
the house. When he was left to himself as a cyhild, he would roll
out yards of wallpaper and draw on the white side, producing long
continuous stories.. His family moved to Minneapolis when he was
nine, and he visited the Minnapolis Institute of arts but was
scared off by the mummies in the collection....It was not until
he was eighteen that Rosenquist encountered serious painting;
he hitchhiked fro the University of Minnesot, where he was a student,
to the Art Institute of Chicago and was just stunned by what he
saw there - works by Edgar Degas and Claude Moent, as wll as more
modern pieces by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. At university,
Rosenquist came under the tutelage of Cameron Booth. A veteran
of World War I who had studied with Hans Hoffman in Miunich, Booth
was probably the most interesting Abstract Expressionist in the
Midwest....Rosenquist must have shown talent early on, because
by 1955 he had won a scholarship to the Art Students League in
New York....Rosenquist arrived in Manhattan in September of 1955,
got a room at the YMCA, and promptly headed off to the Cedar Tavern,
as he puts it, "see the old guys" - Willem de Kooning,
Franz Kline, and the other artists of their generation, who were
regulars there. But when he got to the bar 'the vibes were terrible.'
The militant black poet LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name
to Amiri Baraka, was having a drink and had just got into a terrible
argument with George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American
Nazi Party....At the Art Studens League, Rosnquist studied with
three artists of note: George Grosz, from whom he learned a delicate
touch with color; Edwin Dickson, an early modernist, and on of
the most underrecognized figures in American art...' and Robert
Beverly Hale, an interesting artist who taught classical drawing
and was a curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he
distinguished himself by acquiring works by de Kooning, Kline,
Jackson Pollock, and others....To get by financially, Rosenquist
worked briefly as a chauffeur and bartender for Roland Stearns,
a son of one of the founders of Bear Stearns; then he joined the
sign painter's union....He claims to have learned more fro his
fellow 'paint smearers,' as he calls them, that he did in art
school....If you are painting Gregory Peck in a movie billboard,
you have to make him recognizable from blocks away, even though
you are working right against the surface, high up on scaffolding.
So you grid it out, and you learn to see what you are doing from
any distance. Rosenquist quit the buisness by 1960, afte a fellow
worker died falling from scaffolidng....In 1958 and 1959, Rosenquist
produced his first truly mature paintings, which he has called
'excavations'....He also referrred to them as the 'wrong-color
painitngs,' because they were oten made with paint discarded from
his commercial jobs....The excavations are delicate, textured
works, almost abstract, with small strokes in an allover pattern
on the canvass . Though they are nonobjective, some have faint
geometric shapes or lettering in them, which were based onb the
traces or stairs,other structures, and signs that Rosenquist noticed
on the sides of buildings while he was up in the air working on
billboards - the pentimenti explosed when other buildings were
torn down....In 1960, he settled into a loft at 3-5 Coenties Slip,
on the East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan, a building where
a number of other artists - Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes
Martin, and Jack Youngerman - were already living and working....Before
he met Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol or saw what they were up
to, he was already making art that was veyr much related to theirs.
..Rosenquist has talked about the terror of the bare studio. He
saw some of the artists around him fixing up their studios, ...and
he began to wonder whether they would ever have the courage to
start producing work. He told himself he was not going to all
into the same trap, so in order to have something to look at in
his studio he began collecting, from magazines and other sources,
advertisements and photographic reproductions that he spread out
across the floor and pinned up on the walls. He arranged them
in certain ways, as he tried to decide what he was going to paint.
Eventually, the clippings were incorporated into collages that
he made in preparation for the paintings."
A Pop Art classic, "Hey!
Let's Go For A Ride," is a very, very fine Rosenquist painting
from 1961. An oil on canvas, it measures 34 1/8 by 35 7/8 inches
and is in the collection of Samuel and Ronnie Heyman of New York.
Mr. Hopps recounts that the term "Pop"
began in England in the mid-1950s when it referred to mass-produced
products "and later to the artworks - featuring imagery appropriated
from advertising and popular culture - made by a group of English
artists, beginning as early as the late 1940s, with Eduardo Paolozzi's
collages..., and including such works as Richard Hamilton's iconic
Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?
(1956). Other artists in the British movement included Derek Boshier,
David Hockney, Allen Jones and an American working in England,
R. B. Kitaj, and their work was full of images from American magazines....Pop
art also turned up in France and Germany, where it countered the
prevailing nonobjective art. In France, there were Yves Klein's
kitsch objects that he made by spray-painting souvenir casts from
the Louvre with International Klein Blue, and Martial Raysse's
sculptural works incorporating neon lighting....In Germany, there
were the collage-like paintings of Sigmar Polke...and the grisailles
of Gerhard Richter, both of whom made extensive use of photographic
sources....When recognition first came to Rosenquist, with an
exhibition at Bellamy's Green Gallery in February 1962, he was
hailed as a new and important member of the nascent Pop art movement
in America - thanks mostly to his renderings of consumer products,
from peaches to paper clips, and of movie stars, such as Joan
Crawford and Marilyn Monroe....Rosenquist was undeniably an important
figure in Pop art, but his significant work began independently
of the movement and continued on to become something that was
quite distinct from it. In Pop art, there is generally a figure-ground
relationship - a rendering of a specific object, often an inherently
flat object, such as a flag, or a newspaper page, against a colored
or neutral background. Simple graphic devices - outlines and colorrelationships
- may suggest a sort of depth, but ther eis rarely any perspective.
Rosenquist, however, rendered forms three-dimensionally. Few of
his images seem to sit precisely on the picture plane; things
are going on behind, and things are pressing forward as well.
His color palette is more varied than that of the other Pop artists...and
his shifts in the scale of objects within a composition are more
drastic....Another factor that sets Rosenquist apart from the
other Pop artists is the degree to which he has relied on handpainting....He
is a superb painter in a very traditional sense, producing very
One of the artist's most startling and memorable
works is "Bedspring," a 36-inch square oil on canvas
with painted twine and stretcher bars. Created in 1962, it is
in the collection of the artist and is fascinating for the way
the artist cropped out the woman's mouth and nose. It is almost
terrifying because of the taut way in which the canvas is suspended
within the frame by painted twine, and because of the perhaps
concerned expression of the subject, but its sensuous colors and
beautiful eye suggest it is an endearment rather than a dissection.
It is in the collection of the artist.
One of Rosenquist's most famous images is "President
Elect," an oil on masonite that measures 7 feet 5 3/4 inches
by 12 feet. Executed in 1960-1 and 1964, it is in the collection
of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne/Centre
de Création Industrielle in Paris.
Rosenquist, according to Hopps, utilized various
methods to incorporate "a collection of things into a composition
in such a way that they they make a kind of sense, even if it
is sometimes in counterpoint to what the individual objects imply.
One early method he used was to divide the pictorial spaces of
a canvas symmetrically into four quadrants and quite artibrarily,
it wuld seem, put a different cropped image in each one....In
other works , the elements may be set edge to edge or juxtaposed
so that they seem to overlie or even mesh with each other; sometimes,
the edges are serrated so that two layers interlock....Rosenquist
has also disrupted space in quite literal ways: for Forest
Ranger..., he painted an Army tank on Mylar, which he then
cut into strips, so that you could walk through it, like a car
going through a car wash....With these devices, Rosenquist has
managed to include more compositional elements than almost any
of his contemporaries...Rosenquist is an artist for whom the conjunction
is almost invariably 'and' rather than 'or.'...President Elect...has
a tripartite structure with, left to right, a close-up of John
F. Kennedy's face, a woman's hands holding a slice of cake, and
a portion of an automobile. As Rosenquist explains, 'The face
was from Kennedy's campaign poster. I was very interested at that
time in people who advertised themselves. What did they put on
an advertisement of themselves? So that was his face. And his
promise was half a Chevrolet and a piece of stale cake.'"
Later in his career, Rosenquist's subject changed
from rather static snapshots to hyperenergetic panoramas of considerable
complexity. "Women's Intuition, after Aspen," is a stunning
example of Rosenquist's swirling imagination. An oil on canvas,
it measures 5 by 12 feet and was executed in 1998. It is in the
collection of Marvin Ross Friedman of Coral Gables, Florida.
In discussing "an extraordinary set of
three paintings, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997-98...),"
Hopps maintains that "everything in these paintings is in
flux, thrown in to a whirling vortex of anamorphic shapes. In
The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (painting 3), the conical
hairdryer from F-111 is reprised, now surrounded by lipsticks.
'The little girl who was the pilot of the F-111 is now the heiress
who controls Wall Street,' Rosenquist says. This group of works
is dominated by the color red, but it also contains yellow and
black to make up the colors of the German flag. In The Swimmer
in the Econo-mist (painting 1), a quite literal depiction
of Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) floats toward the right
of the painting into a red river of activity. It is bent and broken,as
if it has been tossed and damaged as it rushes along."
Some of his most successful
late works, like "Nasturtium Salad," with overlapping,
serrated shard-like images, invoke the cut-outs of Matisse, albeit
in a less lyrical, way. They are quite beautiful. In her catalogue
essay, "James Rosenquist: collage and the painting of modern
life," Julia Blaut quotes the artist as stating that "a
good painting continues to ask you to seek out information it
has to offer for a long time," adding that "There's
something to the idea of the glimpse...After that glimpse, there's
Many of Rosenquist's best works
are not collages and not always colossal. "Car Touch,"
an oil on shaped and mechanized canvas panels, is a fine composition
in which the front and rear of large American, chromed cars, appear
bumper to bumper. Although it is large, 7 feet 4 inches by 6 feet
2 inches, this 1966 work could be much smaller . The fact that
it is mechanized is cute, but not necessary. It is a well-conceived
Sometimes Rosenquist just creates
something that is lovely. "Mirage Morning," a color
lithograph with Plexiglass and painted window-shade fixtures,
string and stones and fenestrated and painted window shade, is
both elegant and boisterous, intricate and intriguing. Published
in an edition of 40, it measures 3 feet by 6 feet 2 inches and
was executed in 1974-5.
There is a famous "match
game" in "Last Year at Marienbad," the great Alain
Resnais film, that frustrated many. It involved removed one match
at a time from any of several rows that contained different numbers
of matches. "Snow Fence," a 1973 oil on canvas, probably
has nothing to do with that game or with "pick up sticks."
It is perhaps just another throw-away example of Rosenquist's
virtuosity. It is a very strong work that bears little resemblance
to much of his oeuvre.
Fire Pole Expo 67 Mural Montreal Canada; Study for File Pole,"
is a simple but very powerful image that again demonstrates Rosenquist's
Some of the other striking
works in the exhibition include "Terrarium," a 1977
work in the collection of Anne Anka of Los Angeles, which has
a Japanese feel to it; "Leaky Ride for Dr. Leakey, 1983 work
in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift
of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, a work in which pencils
have replaced lipsticks; and "Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Eleanor Roosevelt,"
a 1998 work in the collection of the artist that features eyeglasses
and barbed wire.
Rosenquist has a strong feel for sculpture.
"Tumbleweed" is a marvelous confection of chromed barbed
wire, neon tubing and wood that he made from 1963 to 1966. In
1976, he designed Calyx Krater Trash Can that featured
an etched image in gold of figures from a Greek vase on the side
of a steel trash can.
"Rosenquist," Hopps concluded, "is
an important and remarkable imagist, in the original sense of
the word. He is very much a visual poet. Sometimes his poems are
epic; somethings they are vast in subject or in scale - but they
are still poems. His paintings are not narrative, like a novel;
they are rich and complex, but you can read them in a short span
of time. He orchestrates combinations that seem absurd - a French
horn and a black hole - but those combinations also make a curious
sense, both formally and psychologically."
Rosenquist is certainly epic and grandiose
and theatrical, often excessively. Not everything is a thing of
beauty, or even coherence. Yet he has produced some truly fine
work that is masterful and often exciting. He is probably too
brazen to be viewed as a poet. One suspects he does not choose
to whisper very much. There is little doubt, however, that he
usually has something of considerable interest to communicate
despite his almost too-facile techniques. He has a very fertile
mind, which is, of course, rare.