PRINT December 1965

James Rosenquist: Aspects of a Multiple Art

WHEN SOME OF THE LIGHTS on Forty-Second Street movie marquees were turned out in order to attract attention in that neon jungle, we reached a significant saturation point. Rosenquist departs from the resulting half-lit world of contrasts rather than from the all-out Fun Fair that preceded it. His references are oblique, his images obscured, his aims complex; his is a multiple, rather than a single-minded art, made up of a unique combination of sassy Pop realism, mysterious irrationality and an essentially non-objective sensibility. The key to Rosenquist’s work is not its commercial vocabulary, nor its detachment, but its scale. “For me things have to be life size or larger. I believe it is possible to bring something so close that you can see through it, so it comes to you right off the wall. I like to bring things into unexpected immediacy—as if someone thrust something right next to your face—a beer bottle or his shirt cuff—and said ‘how do you like it?’”1

If a beer bottle is painted six feet tall, it radiates suggestively beyond the painting. (If the bottle is that big, what about the people?) Many paintings executed in conventional scale will diminish and lose their impact in the ordinary room or exhibition space. A Rosenquist retains its vigor in much the same way that a Rothko or a Newman holds its own in any space and in fact remakes the space in its own image. Their single images and Pollock’s allover compositions also reject the static relationship between objects imposed by conventional, consistent scale. The Cubists brought the objects portrayed forward to the picture plane; the Futurists attempted, with little success, to go beyond it. The Surrealists, who made full use of juxtaposition and arbitrary scale, did so only within the limits of conventional space, depending on the recognizable framework—a room or a landscape—to define the size of an object. They still saw the rearrangement of scale in literary, nineteenth-century terms, and were involved in a limited alteration of scale, changing the way certain objects or places were seen, rather than in re-scaling a new immediate environment.

Rosenquist’s work is often compared to that of René Magritte. Although he admires the Belgian Surrealist, the similarity is superficial. They share a knowledge of the mystery inherent in common images. Yet Magritte’s remote and deadpan approach is closer to that of the other Pop artists than to Rosenquist’s. His questions about illusion and resemblance are posed in an earlier, and static, spatial language; his picture within a picture motifs are concerned with dislocation rather than re-integration. Magritte plays devil’s advocate rather than God with reality. He challenges known nomenclature but rarely renames anything. To Rosenquist it makes no difference what things are called. What they look like counts. He employs artifice as a formal tool and surface reality to rob objects and people of their identities. More important, and this is the crux of the visual difference between Pop and Surrealism, Rosenquist’s disparities of scale are not intended to reflect upon neighboring images, but to act directly upon the spectator.

Traditional implications of illusionism are reversed. The disproportionate scale of Rosenquist’s images forces them out rather than back into the painted distance, envelops the spectator in an elephantine trompe l’oeil. Where other Pop artists have used scale to overpower but not to attack, holding the image on the picture plane in an arrogant withdrawal, Rosenquist uses his gigantism as an assault on normality: this is the first aspect of his work. In the process of the attack, the object loses its identity and becomes form. This is the second experience—a more subtle and less recognized one. Lichtenstein and Rosenquist are the two non-objective painters involved in Pop. That is, they share basic intentions with their wholly abstract contemporaries. “One thing, the subject isn’t popular images,” Rosenquist has insisted. “It isn’t that at all.”

At one time there was a popular misconception that this “former sign painter named James Rosenquist” (Newsweek) was a kind of updated “peintre naif,” hauled off his scaffolding by some inspired entrepreneur. In fact, he has been painting seriously for fourteen years. From 1952 to 1955 he studied art with Cameron Booth at the University of Minnesota, then came to New York for a year’s scholarship at the Art Students League. After various odd jobs he was hired by the General Outdoor Advertising Company, having learned sign-painting as a trade at the age of twenty. By 1960 he had developed a distinctive all-over style, predominantly grey, a heavily painted “grid of many colors, like an old rug.” The one transitional painting, still non-objective, superimposed a huge red arabesque derived from billboards. The fresh, lurid color of his present work was the final break with early influences.

In winter 1959–60, Rosenquist made a series of window display murals for Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdale’s based on billboard techniques, and he has often spoken of his experiences painting signs and of the possibilities of working seriously in that manner. It was not, however, until the fall of 1960 that he first applied commercial techniques and subject matter to his own painting. Zone, the first canvas in his present style, still exists, though greatly changed. Aside from a huge face, it originally included some cows, a hand shaking salt on a lapel, a naked man committing suicide. A flood in the studio washed off some of the paint and it was reworked. The colors were too bright and too many. The little man was too small. “He fell into the old pictorial space,” and Rosenquist was primarily concerned with getting away from conventional pictorial traditions, especially those of scale and space. He began (as Andy Warhol did at roughly the same time) by rendering his new images in Abstract Expressionistic techniques and “drips.” Even after abandoning this to make a clean break, he retained for a few years a freedom of execution that went generally unnoticed. At a normally chosen vantage point an image would look almost stenciled; on closer inspection, loose, relaxed strokes could be discerned, though this derived more from the distance factor of billboards than from any Expressionist tendency.

Rosenquist still prefers to paint the individual images “so well that they might sell something, as though it had to be done by noon on contract. By painting fast and directly, even if it’s just to sell snake oil or stockings, more goes into it than you realize.” Most of his paintings go through myriad transformations, sometimes as many as five major changes a day, each decided and executed at almost breakneck speed. No matter how large or how finished or how close to the deadline a canvas may be (The World’s Fair mural, for example) he will begin from scratch on an entire section, or rearrange the whole composition the day before it is to be installed. While the basic principles of Rosenquist’s fragmentation are those of collage, he completely eschews ready-made pictorial materials, and is equally opposed (for his own art) to mechanical aids and reproductive processes, finding them too limiting. “Change is what makes art. Collage is too divorced from materials. Painting goes into more depth. The work changes all the time no matter how careful you are to stay close to what you are copying.” On the other hand, some of his preliminary studies are impermanent collages, bearing no strict resemblance to the completed canvas. He begins by making numerous composition sketches in the form of scribbled “ideagrams,” pastel or pencil drawings with color and conception notes, and apparently nonobjective oil-on-paper studies. Color areas stand for the images, which, when chosen from magazines, newspapers or other commercial sources, are stapled onto a piece of paper, in approximately their final shape or order. But between these work sheets and the finished product, the scale and color of everything may be completely revised. Change of scale gives the artist complete flexibility and provokes new ideas even after the original decisions have been made. In the work sheet a man’s trouser leg and a candy bar may be about the same size, while on the final canvas one is ten times larger than the other.

Even if Rosenquist wants to “avoid the romantic quality of paint and keep the stamp of the manmade thing,” his approach is fundamentally romantic, which again sets him apart from the rest of the major Pop artists, except for Oldenburg. He is also a “wholesome” painter (though this word has been relegated to the level of bread and bad movies), a moral artist in the sense of Robert Motherwell’s statement:

“I think a great deal of what’s happening between America and Europe now—I’m speaking of younger artists—is our implacable insistence here on moral values, which I think is slowly disappearing among younger artists in Europe, who paint mainly with taste. And I don’t mean this in a superior way, but almost primitively, as a kind of animal thirst for something solidly real. It’s directed to what one really feels, and not to what one prefers to feel, or thinks one feels.”2

The idealism of today is irony. Satire and social protest are not major elements in Rosenquist’s art. In fact, the only painting which is conspicuously “political” is a large triptych entitled Homage to the American Negro. Here a headless “white” man (posed, but unintentionally, like the Lincoln Monument), sits on a Negro’s head. Through and around a pair of dark glasses the sky and rectangular background are subtly varied by color and value switches. A white mother whispering advice to her children is placed before a camera aperture reading “darken, normal, lighten,” and her nose is decorated with IBM machine perforations. The only brown thing in the painting is the delicious looking chocolate frosting on a huge piece of vanilla cake that takes up the entire right side. Elsewhere the “colored people” are literally colored—green, blue, orange, etc. The painting is about color, but not the color of skin. “It is about the colors in a colorful person, the colors you do not see through glasses.”

Rosenquist’s last one-man show, (April 1965) which consisted solely of the 23-foot mural, F-111, was entirely devoted to a social theme, that of the artist’s position in today’s society, the insignificance of the easel painting in an era of immensity, of jet war machines and “noveaux collectionneurs” buying wholesale. He has used scale here to force acknowledgment of the importance of art, as a “visual antidote to the power and pressure of the other side of our society.” Nevertheless, this message is far from apparent to the casual or even to the concentrating viewer, and serves as further indication of the determinedly iceberg quality of Rosenquist’s art and aims. The same is true of the specific images in the majority of his works. They have no “story to tell,” but they often do have a personal significance to the artist, a significance which he refuses to make obvious because it is personal, and because the painting is to be seen first and foremost as a painting, as a “visual boomerang.” He constantly avoids clever, witty, poetic, easily absorbed or humorous imagery in his use of juxtaposition. While the idea for a painting and its title usually occur to him simultaneously, neither is literal. A Lot to Like, 1962, seems to demand a generalized interpretation pertaining to the mad rush of the consumer to consume, but it was intended as a comment on the flaunting of masculinity. (The football player throws his “pass” through the hole in the razor blade and into the bottomless woman.) Blandly round and smooth forms are contrasted with sharp edges and associations, such as the blade (deceptively painted a soft grey), the point of the umbrella, and the hard green rain (“like Hiroshige, but radioactive, Hiroshima too”). Here, as elsewhere, there is a distinct abstract eroticism emphasized by the unidentified and consequently suggestive anatomical areas, and by the sinuous arabesques that join and transform the ragged, quick-flash image compartments. The irony of Rosenquist’s work is pervasive, not specific. He refers to the ’50s by hair styles, cars or clothes from the recent past, images that “people haven’t started to look at yet, that have the least value of anything I could use and still be an image, because recent history seems unremembered and anonymous while current events are bloody and passionate and older history is categorized and nostalgic.”

Rosenquist’s experience as a billboard painter sharpened his reactions to the non-representational aspects of outwardly representational forms. This might not have been the case had he not had the eye of a non-objective painter. Being hoisted up Kirk Douglas’ cheek to paint a four-foot eyelash, he became aware that Kirk Douglas had disappeared, the cheek was no longer a cheek, nor the eyelash an eyelash; that he was enveloped in a sea of purely plastic form and color defined by immense arabesques. In turn, it is this familiarity with the monstrous that allows Rosenquist to understate his enlargement. Most of us will get no closer to such an experience than seeing Jayne Mansfield’s ten-foot high monotone breast emerging from the movie screen. There is something of the old 3-D films or even of stereoscopic images in Rosenquist’s protruding forms, and parallels are suggested with advanced film technique such as the love-making scenes from “Hiroshima, mon amour,” where specific parts of the body are seen in such close-up detail that they become the anonymous essence of union. In this sense he is again in opposition to Lichtenstein and Wesselmann, who have gone to great lengths to flatten and remove their images from spectator space in order to achieve that other ambiguity between two and three dimensions. Less rigorous and more experimental than the other Pop artists, Rosenquist is also more uneven. His methods demand an intuitive control and at times the images float uneasily on the surface in a spatial no-man’s land, or are landlocked in crowded incoherence when the formal idea is not fully resolved. His mastery of these complexities is grounded in a highly developed and still expanding vocabulary of spatial devices.

These devices are, for the most part, based on minutely varied color changes. The eye unaccustomed to such refinements misses a good deal in his work. Rosenquist acquired a heightened awareness of monotone nuance from the grisaille billboards. (In “Silver Skies,” for instance, each grey is tinted a different color.) The white-lead base of practically all of his colors (except for the day-glo tones, which he was perhaps the first to use extensively) gives them a fresh and ingenuous air (also saccharine and pungently repellent when so desired). White is particularly important in the pale “unfinished” colors, like those of printers’ color-separation proofs. In other contexts, white is used to segment and imperceptibly alter forms which are in other respects “whole.” An all but invisible line, a psychological rather than visual division, is obtained by the addition of an infinitesimal amount of white; the result is like a shadow across the surface, almost unnoticeable, providing a quieter dimension to the excitement of an art which first seems implacably resistant to a subtle reading. Similar effects hold one image in front of another or signal sharp divisions within a single image, or set up dissimilar spaces. A pictured object, moving from one subtly defined compartment to another, may change abruptly in value but not in color, or vice versa. A brilliant cadmium may be juxtaposed against a still more brilliant day-glo red on one side, a cool grey on the other, forcing a change of identity in mid-form and, radically, but again nearly imperceptibly, distorting its role in the overall design.

Such subtleties are employed in a clearer and more formal manner in the use of a painted or separate and slightly projecting rectangle that repeats or modifies its ground. This stresses the nonobjective character of the work as well as reinforcing certain effects of scale. In Noon, a sky panel set in another sky enlarges an infinite and virtually unenlargeable area by making it relative (an eminently Magrittean idea, but used for different ends). A more extensive exploration of the relief panels occurred in Capillary Action I, 1962, a large painting of a tree in a park landscape where green and greenish, photographic greys and “natural” tones are played against each other to expose the artificiality and banality of Nature. A grisaille foreground implies Please Don’t Step on the Grass, a kelly green panel stuck over a swatch of paint-smeared newspaper and tape implies Wet Paint. Rosenquist says it is about “seeing abstraction everywhere, looking at a landscape and seeing abstraction,” in contrast to the usual spectator sport of finding the figure or landscape in abstractions. The implications of this theme were followed up in a construction—Capillary Action II, 1963, where the tree is real, about eight feet high and neither painted nor refurbished. Here too a piece of torn newspaper hints at the artifice of reality itself. The space is animated by three stretched plastic panels and a square drawn in wiggly red neon, all set at different distances from the surface of a larger, inset panel. “A painter searches for a brutality that hasn’t been assimilated by nature. I believe there is a heavy hand of nature on the artist,” Rosenquist has said. This second piece proved him right in an extra-art manner. It was the result of a wild day and night search through Westchester for the “right tree,” which never turned up. “Nature couldn’t provide it.”

When he began to add extraneous materials to his canvases consistently in 1962–63, Rosenquist chose carefully, concentrating on “abstract” substances, such as mirror, tin, clear plastic, glass, aluminum and rainbow streaked bars of wood. One of the most effective was sections of limp plastic drop sheet, either transparent or vertically dripped with paint, which acted upon the canvas below and combined visually to make new colors, providing a shifting chromatic screen through which that area of the painting changed continually, and adding a capricious dimension subject to the breeze or light in the room. In 1964 he made several free-standing constructions, most of which employed light. These were environmental in that they were more concerned with extending sensuous experience than with pure form. Light and clear plastics share with Rosenquist’s iconography a quiescent immateriality, the ability to destroy conventional space and define further levels or “vantage points” from or through which an object might be seen. A chrome-plated barbed wire extravaganza with a flourish of blue neon streaking through it used light as abstract fantasy; a luridly multicolored ramp set over a sheet of brightly painted plexiglass, with colored light flashing beneath it was illusionistic; a ceiling panel of a floor plan with bare bulbs suspended from it was paradoxically “realistic.” All of this was part of a burgeoning interest in irregularity, manifested in various non-rectangular or centrally pierced works and two small paintings hung “off kilter” to stress the expendability of background and show that “a painting shouldn’t be perfect. Perfection makes a pun. I’m tired of the Mondrian kind of relationship.”

For most of 1965, however, Rosenquist abandoned these experimental pieces and returned to a stricter and more highly polished evolution of his straight painting style, which culminated in F-111. Partially responsible for this switchback was a summer (1964) in Europe, where everything was so graciously “artistic and beautiful” that on his return he felt forced to revert to a raw, brash and “non-artistic” idiom to get started again. During the past summer, (1965) spent in Aspen, Colorado, Rosenquist became vitally interested in Oriental thought and also embarked on an extremely personal project to experiment with the effects of peripheral vision. Not painting, nor construction, and only ambiguously environmental, this series of tentlike arches of painted canvas may constitute the breakthrough into the non-objective which has been imminent for at least two years. The climactic summing-up of F-111 would seem to necessitate it, were it not that the unexpected and wide open character of the man and the work defies prediction.

Lucy R. Lippard


1. All unsourced quotations are from the artist, primarily in conversation with the author, and also from G.R. Swenson’s interview “What Is Pop Art?”, Art News, February, 1964, and Dorothy Seckler’s “Folklore of the Banal,” Art in America, Winter 1962.

2. Metro, no. 7, 1962, p. 95.