PRINT Summer 1972

Derealized Epic

ROSENQUIST’S STORIES, OBLIQUE, RAMBLING, and vivid, give a sense of his take on America. “He was black with dust, but there were white circles around his eyes outlining the goggles he wore while plowing.”1 “In Six Flags Over Texas, an amusement park near Fort Worth, I got into the simulated Louisiana Riverboat. A young man in costume began to pole the boat through an s-shaped ditch filled with water. The boat started with a jerk, actually being propelled by huge teeth coming out of the water.”2 Here is an earlier version of a story recorded by Jeanne Siegel in her interview in the present Artforum: “I was working on top of the Latin Quarter roof in Times Square, painting a ‘Join the Navy’ sign. Above me five more stories in the ironwork were electricians repairing light bulbs in the Canadian Club sign. As a practical joke they dropped four boxes of light bulbs down on me. For about thirty seconds I was showered with breaking light bulbs.”3 There is a tangy flavor of American life to these stories which is very much present in his painting, a folk-realism of encounters and surprises. “On the road, a trailer truck roared by and an airplane flew overhead.”4 Compare this truck with those referred to by Robert Rauschenberg in his notes on “random order”: “with sound scale and insistency trucks mobilize words and broadside our culture by a combination of law and local motivation that cannot be described as accidental.”5 The urban diversity of Rauschenberg’s verbal image, the equivalent of his silkscreened paintings, is such that we do not expect any single image to be accounted for by terms that refer to all the other images. Rosenquist’s clusters of discontinuous objects are not discrete and scattered in this way; he has not relinquished causal relationships, even though their sequence may not always be clear.

Rosenquist’s America is more like Robert Indiana’s, an example of which is in Indiana’s linking in The Melville Triptych, 1961, of Coenties Slip where he had a studio, with Moby Dick, Jn which the Slip is mentioned. Rosenquist does not evoke the 19th century, but he does have a sense of America as a large but united place, in which all kinds of bonds exist between people and objects. The crowded present, not the historic past, is his area of reference. Referring to I Love You With My Ford, Rosenquist defined his notion of time as a devalued zone between now and the past. “In 1960 and ’61 I painted the front of a 1950 Ford. I felt it was an anonymous image” from “a time we haven’t started to ferret out as history yet.”6 Four 1949 Guys is another example of this feeling for neutral style and for a period which is post-historical but not fully the present. In the early ’60s even his colors were recurrently red, white, and blue, not only in Uncle Sam’s hat as flower pot or cornucopia in the World’s Fair mural, 1964, but in a group of billboard or CinemaScope format paintings, such as President Elect, A Lot to Like, Silver Skies, Nomad, Lanai, and Taxi.

F-111, 1965, is the painting in which Rosenquist’s sense of America as a continental presence and as technology are most clearly stated. In program the painting is not unlike a WPA mural, just as Horse Blinders is not unlike a Wonders of the Technological Age mural or a foldout in an encyclopedia. Once this is said, of course, it is seen not to be accurate enough: it does not take into account the brilliant personal control of the former or the personal obscurity of the latter. Rosenquist thinks in terms of objects and conjunctions of objects with symbolic meanings unlike, say, Roy Lichtenstein who minimizes levels of reference. Marcia Tucker in the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum, discounts Rosenquist’s iconography and suggests the process of perception .as his real subject. If this is so it does not get rid of the problem of signification, because Rosenquist cannot, nor can any artist, depict the process of perception that occurs in an infinite field on a delimited plane. If an artist paints perceptual processes it becomes a diagram of perception and, as one particular diagram is isolated from among others, it is subject to the iconographical interpretation we already bring to bear on objects and their locations in space. Rosenquist has an allegorical imagination which takes as its subject the man-made landscape and our positions within it. In the 17th century, Dutch still-life artists could assign symbolic meanings, vanity, or appetite, to realistic objects without compromising the concreteness of the things shown, but this cannot be done without a shared set of symbols. The sign systems that we do have in common are provided by advertising and the mass media, and Rosenquist uses these, but liberated from thematic constraint.

At one point the fuselage of the F-111, which runs through the whole painting, is interrupted by a smiling child under a hair drier. According to the artist, “the little girl is the female form in the picture. It is like someone having her hair dried on the lawn, in Texas or Long Island.”7 Both the plane and the girl are elements that can be reconciled within Rosenquist’s epic view of things American. Or the child can be read as a contrast to what is literally the war machine; she is happy now, but what will the future bring? In addition, the hair drier with its lustrous highlights and (pre-Estes) reflections is no less a product of technology than the plane. The drier can certainly be construed as an analogue of a high altitude flying helmet, thus casting the child as if she were a member of the air crew. Rosenquist referred to the dependence of people “in Texas or Long Island” for work on the production of the plane, and crossovers like that of the helmet and hair drier carry this further. The picture is, in a sense, a visualization of systems theory, with the support system of the plane rooted deeply in American society. Another connection is given by the artist who, after referring to the A-bomb mushroom in one section, said: “then next, that’s an underwater swimmer wearing a helmet with an air bubble above his head, an exhaust air bubble that’s related to the breath of the atomic bomb. His ‘gulp’ of breath is like the ’gulp’ of the explosion. It’s an unnatural force, man-made.”8 (There is also the pair of fire and water.) In addition, I am reminded of Bruce Conner’s A Movie, 1958, in which shots of the mushroom cloud precede a sequence underwater in which a diver sinks into the hold of a wreck with a rhythm that implies the extinction of the human race.

F-111 combines the image of America as the Big Country with a highly developed war technology. Horse Blinders, 1968–69, Rosenquist’s next big picture, shifts the view to a control center, like the driver’s seat, the cockpit, though the governing theme is kitchen technology. There is an enormous finger, reminding one of all those ads for touch control, a telephone cable—its color-coded wires opening out like a bouquet, and motion studies of a spoon beating food in a bowl, and a snaky telephone flex. A block of butter melts in a pan over a glowing burner and there are images of energy in wave form. Apropos the man-energy theme, Nicolas and Elena Calas point out that “the giant finger points to an acoustic device emitting sound. The room is in fact filled with noise, with ‘rumor’, according to the artist, coming from without.”9

The title Horse Blinders, referring to the item worn by horses to block peripheral vision, is unclear. Presumably the artist is either (1) freeing us of our blinders so that we can see the world more widely or (2) implying that the objects in the painting act like horse blinders on us, their users. These drastic alternatives are not resolved in the painting and it is not part of Rosenquist’s intention to do so. Forms are defined as obscure bosses of expanding detail or as amorphous surfaces that expand into what Rosenquist once called “immediate infinity.” The effect is of objects slipping out of focus, losing their boundaries. Enlargement and identity loss go together: the result of Rosenquist’s giantism is doubt, not clarity. In addition the artist uses multiple viewpoints for the different objects and areas of the Painting. There is no correlation between the scene depicted and an ideal point of view from which the spectator can occupy the equivalent of the artist’s original viewpoint. There is, in fact, a dissolution of vantage point so that the spectator is put into a kind of nowhere by the scale of the array. In total, these environmental paintings propose an epic treatment of American subjects and, at the same time, there is a postponed closure of the relationships and a derealization of the objects themselves.

By derealization I mean the obverse of “the making or being real of something imagined” (Random House unabridged). It is something that Rosenquist could not do in painting if he did not have common ground with his spectator in the form of pre-known objects and recognizable types of signs supplied by the mass media. By using known sources, Rosenquist is able to make us aware of the degree of abstraction or transformation that they are undergoing. Hence his ability to give us a familiar world and to withdraw it from us. He depicts the world in terms of those episodes in which we lose our grip on it. His use of the mass media as a legible sign inventory existing prior to the painting is obviously held in common with other Pop artists. On the other hand, no other Pop artist used this fund of imagery and technique the way Rosenquist has, celebrating America and alienation from it. His is a unique moralism, articulate but secretive.

Between 1952 and 1960, Rosenquist painted outdoor commercial jobs, starting with “storage bins, grain-elevators, and gasoline tanks through-out Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Dakota,” to quote Linda Cathcart’s chronology in the catalogue. From 1957 he painted billboards in New York City and, at the same time, evolved his own painting to a free brushy style represented at the museum by Astor and Mayfair, both of 1958. Zone, 1960, is said to be his “first painting which employs commercial techniques” (Cathcart again), though according to Lucy Lippard, much repainted in its present form.10 However, the dating of works in the present show suggests a less abrupt change to the real thing in Rosenquist’s art. In 1959, for instance, he painted Four 1949 Guys, which is characteristic of his mature work inasmuch as the four sections contain a clearly rendered ice cream cone and incomplete images of men. Recognizable poses are indicated but the identity of the actors is blocked. This mix .of concreteness and evasiveness is fully characteristic of his art. It is one of a group of paintings done between 1959 and 1961, which are solemn in color, darkly shadowed, and somewhat labored in paint-handling.11 It is as if Rosenquist were working for a closed, dense paint deposit in opposition to the open and fluid surface of billboard painting which, though legible at a distance, is porous close-up. At an opposite extreme is President Elect, 1960–61, which is the closest of all his paintings to a regular billboard, in its open touch and public face. It is a clear, trite American triptych: hero’s head, hands demonstrating a cake’s texture, and part of an auto. In successive paintings Rosenquist abandoned the heavy surface and concentrated on reconciling the formal properties of the billboard and easel painting. The Lines Were Etched Deeply on her Face, 1961, reveals the successful intersection of personally generated images and a technique derived from commercial art. The collision of the objects is sharper than later on, but a principle of intercepted images and suspended explication has been established.

Tube, 1961, is an extraordinary painting, a tondo painted as if it were a rearview mirror or a comparable reflecting surface. A section of an automobile appears at the center of the image which otherwise consists of unidentifiable reflections (an anticipation of Lichtenstein’s mirror paintings of 1970). Rosenquist has brought into painting, from his billboard expertise, a range of hitherto unpainted textures, such as curved reflective surfaces, expanses of crumpled metal, and amorphous fields of flesh or drapery. It is not an image of the process of perception but it does create a situation in which we are reminded of perceptual crises and double takes in our own lives. Tube is not explainable as the reconstruction of an objective single event, as it is not iconic in correspondence to a possible situation. However both the inserted image of the car and the reflections are compatible stylistically, as parts of an easy-ranging eloquence of flowing brushwork. Rosenquist has taken the strangely immersive experience of painting enormous forms close-up and found a way to transfer them to moderate-sized canvases. Who painted reflections five feet across before Rosenquist? To quote Marcia Tucker, Rosenquist switches “the accepted values of objects and field,”12 so that sky can become a solid patch and an object seen near at hand can dilate to field status. Thus the derealization of Rosenquist’s objects, recognized but doubted in their substantiality or wholeness, is the result of a coincidence of the formal resources of commercial art and the demands of an authentic personal imagination.

Lucy Lippard suggested of Capillary Action 1, 1962, that the “photographic grays 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.’”13 Tucker, discussing the same picture, notes: “color reverses the illusion of distance . . . because the foreground is gray and the background green; this is the opposite of the way grayed-out color is traditionally used to indicate distance and brightened tones are used to suggest nearness.”14 Lippard’s nature and art polarity and Tucker’s foreground and background exchange both suggest the complexity of Rosenquist’s pictures which are frequently hard to read. The fact is that in all of his work any objects that he depicts are mediated by intervening image-systems. That is to say, in addition to the channel characteristics of painting itself, there are references, no less real than to the objects cited, to pre-known styles of communication. The intervening system is a part of the spectrum of mass communications, combining billboard techniques of high impact rendering with wider references to advertising style in general. Aside from the convincing internal evidence, photographs of the artist’s studio show an abundance of pages of magazines and newspapers pinned to the walls.15 Rosenquist introduced a statement of his by saying: “In the recent past I have had these experiences that I have thought of in terms of media.”16 The experiences were episodes of the kind quoted above, half folklore, half personal epiphany. To quote from his statement in this Artforum: “I still think about a space that’s put on me by radio commercials and television commercials be-cause I’m a child of the age.”

America cut the wilderness into states by arbitrary divisions imposed on the land, with only coincidental union with natural boundaries. Rosenquist’s compartmented imagery is similarly arbitrary, often violating preexisting contours. The sectionalized imagery runs deep, taking the forms of painted division where the eye goes from, say, a band of profile to a stratum of spaghetti, or of multiple canvases, in which the eye scans not just depicted breaks but real internal changes of level, as in Capillary Action 1 with its projecting panels. The title One, Two, Three-Outside (sometimes given erroneously as One, Two, Three, Out, an implicit pun but not the prime meaning) refers to a painting which consists of the fragment of one image, and a second and a third part, which is a projection of the sides of the picture, linked by a wire, the “outside” of the title. Sectionalization reached a climax in F-111 with its 51 parts which Rosenquist originally intended should be sold separately. It seems that Rosenquist opposes to the easy unities of large-scale, outdoor commercial paint, a play of divisive and autonomous parts, whose concreteness grinds against simplification. It is by his arbitrary sectionalizing that Rosenquist achieves a special point. Selection and enlargement of detail are hardly new in painting, but Rosenquist avoids typical cues and presents objects in terms of unanticipated detail or indeterminate surface. The recognition of wholes is delayed by the cropping of imagery, not with the purpose of inducing surprise so much as to postpone closure. He is a master of the transitions between painted and three-dimensional sections, with a gamut from jump to glide.

The technique given in The Lines Were Etched Deeply on her Face is taken to a high point of eloquence in Lanai, 1964, in which the protection of anonymous time is dismissed. In the early ’60s Lichtenstein and Dine both used anonymous material as their sources: in Lichtenstein’s case it was long-used and unrevised graphic commercial art and in Dine’s case it was tools and fittings that were common and efficient enough to be, in a quotidian way, timeless. Johns’ ignoring of the expansion of the number of the states in his flag paintings is another example of prudent commonness preferred to risky topicality. Rosenquist’s interest in temporal anonymity is analogous to this, a safeguard against being swamped by the “visual inflation,” as Rosenquist called it, of the developed mass media. By 1964, however, he was confident of his ability to use contemporary imagery without the shield of presumptive permanence. In Lanai the car is a new one, sleek, with a boxy look, and the peaches are as glorious as color reproductive processes can make them. The kneeling nude is, of course, a reference to the White Rock maiden and, it should be noted, in her new pose, with knees together. She kneels however in a new context, on the edge of a swimming pool. The tubular railing rises inward from lower right as a spoon scoops up a peach from upper left. The transitions between sections, both the interpenetrations and the jumps, are smoothly managed, very different from the abrupt style of the earlier pieces. Rosenquist is one of the few American artists of the ’60s to annex images from high style Pop culture. The inverted automobile (the painting is upside down in the catalogue) holds the gloss of an ad on coated paper for all its violent recontextualization. Food, machine, and human image—it is another version of President Elect but rendered now with a glittering lyricism rather than a hard-selling directness. That Rosenquist was conscious of these stylistic differences seems clear from the fact that in the same year he made a bunch of schematic works that derive from low sources in Pop culture. These are Win a New House This Christmas (Contest), Be Beautiful, and Untitled (Joan Crawford Says). These are straight examples from the mass media but each quotation is singular and, unlike Andy Warhol, Rosenquist’s best paintings consist of a conjunction of dissimilar images between which the artist elicits not quite evident connections. His structure is like cinematic or photographic montage: the “superimposition of several shots to form a single image” (Random House unabridged).

Diverse materials are added to some of the paintings of 1962–63, such as Bed Spring, a cutout canvas stretched with string like a backbreaking trampoline. Blue Spark with Small Fishpole and Bedsheet Picture, Morning Sun, and Two 1959 People, include fishing poles, short, boyish improvisations, somewhat Huck Finn-ish. Plastic shreds and pieces are added to other paintings of the time, such as Early in the Morning, Morning Sun, and Nomad. Rosenquist was, therefore, as his painting skill attained mastery, immediately willing to disrupt the homogeneity of the painted surface with raw and loose bits of the world. (The use of glass in Blue Feet [Look Alive], 1961, Rainbow, and Four Young Revolutionaries is part of the same impulse to keep his technical resources stretched.) A group of sculptures emerged from this use of materials in 1963; their combination of fragility and casual appearance was remarkable compared to the sculpture being done at the time. The objects look vulnerable, as if they might fall apart and slip back into the world from which they seem so carelessly taken. Three of them are about the collision of different forms, in ways that imply a shaky art-nature relationship. Soap Ad Tree, Capillary Action 2, and He Swallowed the Chain are of this sort, as is suggested by Rosenquist’s account of the genesis of Soap Ad Tree in his interview with Siegel. The contrast of dead tree and pushy ad is picked up in Capillary Action 2 where the plastic tatters in a frame suggest that the juice of life has run out of the tree and into the frame. Finally the tree appears as a single pole tied to the picture in He Swallowed the Chain; round the edges of the stretcher are the remains of a painting tied to a knot in the center, like Bedspring in reverse.

Catwalk is a ramshackle walk-on structure, like part of an improvised tree house, though Rosenquist links it with scaffolding above Times Square. It is paint-splashed, a trace of process as in Nomad, and participatory, prefiguring not the way that Rosenquist was to develop but a good deal of other sculpture. In Tumbleweed the relation of art and nature is not ironic or disparate but lyrically in gear. The basic support of three crossed sticks, a ball of springy chromed barb-wire, and the quivering track of blue neon are oddly congruent with the plant that gave the work its name. The sticks are paint-splashed, work-marked, compared to the effortless flow of the light and the shine of the wire, suggesting that the tumbleweed has run up against a man-made fence and is stuck.

Recently Rosenquist has been using mylar both as reflective surface in paintings and as free-hanging structure. Avalanche is a polished and elliptical example which floats painted forms on very thin transparent surfaces. There is a block of blue liquid, like unfrozen water in the shape of an ice cube and, lower, on a second sheet of mylar, the top of a paper bag for groceries, but gaping open as if rotted by damp contents. On the floor the outline of a falling fir tree concludes the theme of descent suggested by the order of the images. Domestic and forest episodes are linked, with a startling obliqueness, by the theme of falling.

In the Whitney sculpture court is a new piece by Rosenquist, an extension of the glowing color panels of Slush Thrust, 1969, and Horizon Home Sweet Home, 1969–70. The court has never looked better than it does now, surrounded by tall panels of glamorous color and reflective plastic. When Lucy Lippard wrote on Rosenquist in 1965 she concluded by looking forward to his “breakthrough into the nonobjective which has been imminent for at least two years.”17 My own view of the new work is that the absence of recognizable imagery is not enough to make it “nonobjective.” There is in these panels the interplay of the real and the illusive that marks his iconography as a whole. Tonal gradations and shifting reflections animate the surrounding walls. In an interview Rosenquist said that “using imagery enabled me to set up a time sequence in the painting: a certain thing would be recognized at a certain rate of speed.”18 This at present untitled work is an environmental piece which in its scale—53 panels (though the number is variable) and 12 feet tall—and in its disembodiment by reflections, maintain Rosenquist’s ambition to paint a derealized epic. It is intended to release dry ice in the court, at which time the panels will rear out of the instant, knee-high fog, their present mooring effaced. This is closer to leisure architecture and science fiction tripping than it is to abstract art. “I thought of the fog as a white drawing,” Rosenquist said, and “Geez—I can’t see my knees.”



1. John Rublovsky, Pop Art, New York, 1965, p. 90.

2. Brydon Smith, James Rosenquist, catalogue for the National Gallery of Canada, 1968, p. 88.

3. Ibid.

4. Rublovsky, Pop Art, p. 87.

5. Robert Rauschenberg, “Random Order,” Location, I, no. 1, 1963, pp. 27–31.

6. Gene Swenson, “What is Pop Art?,” Art News, February, 1964, Pp. 40–43.

7. Gene Swenson, “The F-111,” Partisan Review, Fall, 1965, p. 598.

8. Ibid., p. 599.

9. Nicolas and Elena Calas, Icons and Images of the ’60s, New York, 1971, p. 122.

10. “Aside from the human face, it originally included some cows, a hand shaking salt on a lapel, a naked man committing suicide.” Lucy Lippard, Changing, New York, 1971, p. 89.

11. Other paintings are Gold Star Mother, Brighter than the Sun, and Balcony.

12. Marcia Tucker, James Rosenquist, a catalogue for the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1972, p. 17.

13. Lippard, Changing, p. 195.

14. Tucker, Rosenquist, p. 24.

15. Rublovsky, Pop Art, pp. 95–96, 99, 106, 107.

16. Smith, Rosenquist, p. 88.

17. Lippard, Changing, p. 97.

18. Peter Schjeldahl, “An Interview with James Rosenquist,” Opus International, December, 1971, p. 114.