PRINT September 1972

Rosenquist and Samaras: The Obsessive Image and Post-Minimalism

DURING THE MINIMALIST PHASE of the art of the last decade sculptural form tended towards a simple expression of planar shapes. Often, when projected spatially, such forms satisfied an architectural condition while answering a pictorial ambition. In this way, painting, sculpture, and architecture tended to coalesce. It is the work of Frank Stella more than any other painter that provides the paradigm.

Until about 1968 painting was assumed to be an enterprise which was executed on a canvas surface, a surface stretched or tautly supported. In many instances, this requirement of a hard surface was met by employing a smooth panel or, occasionally, a wall. Subsequently, painting gradually lost its exclusively drum-taut nature. Just as the Minimalists questioned what constituted a composition (often answering this query in terms of unitary monochromatic images), so the canvas support changed and became a more casual appenpage of the wall. At length, even the wall itself received the direct application of a pencil line or a pastel marking. Sol LeWitt is an example of the latter and Sam Gilliam and Nina Yankowitz of the former. Similarly, the brushstroke normally on the surface of canvas could now be regarded as freed from this traditional locus. It grew into autonomous elements often consisting of eccentric substances, such as neon, aerated plastic foams, rope, earth, rags, and various gelatinous materials, especially as seen in the work of Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Joseph Beuys, and the late Eva Hesse.

Recently I observed that “. . . an emerging official history . . . places post-Minimalism squarely at the conjunction of a meeting between Oldenburg’s soft sculpture and the gestural tradition of Abstract Expressionism, discounting thereby the long continuity from late Surrealist theory.”1 I meant that the evolution from Minimalism to post-Minimalism had only taken into account a narrow view which regarded Oldenburg and the gestural tradition of Abstract Expressionism positively. Until this point, no connection to late Surrealist theory was drawn because such theory had been relegated to the dustbin by a critical apparatus which placed exclusive emphasis on “formal issues,” issues implicit or central only to the executive act of art-making. With the emergence of an art that emphasized the pre-executive or conceptual phase of art-making, a mode of criticism anchored exclusively to art-making activity, as in formalist criticism, became recognizably inadequate. On these grounds some aspects which formalist criticism disqualified as unworthy of examination now elicit consideration.

The intention is not to revalue certain artists or styles across the board. However, the rejection of late Surrealism need not necessarily blind us to the development of a working syntax in this mode. In summation, post-Minimalism takes note of numerous options inherent to issues that long precede the mid-’60s, and which derive from the first successful style of the ’60s, namely Pop art, as well as numerous late Surrealist antecedents.

An image notorious to the decade, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn of 1962, is compulsively repeated in mechanistic terms, a repetition that in part announces Minimalist seriality, but which, in fact, is largely related to the artist’s obsession with cinematic glamour and media imagery. Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962 traumatized the popular consciousness in the period of the pre-Kennedy assassinations. The number of Marilyn-based images derived from this tragedy is in measure a function of ambiguities implicit in the suicide, an event in which a section of the public unconsciously took perverse pleasure. By contrast, James Rosenquist’s Marilyn Monroe of 1962 in no way corresponds to Warhol’s repetitive and serialized Marilyns. Nor is it especially important in this context to point to a different tradition in the heritage of Rosenquist’s Marilyn which relates to Cubist collage and even more to Schwitters’ Merzbilder. Noteworthy in the Rosenquist is a focus on the entirely professional smile of Marilyn, her capped, white teeth derived from cosmetic toothpaste advertisements, a tradition which Rosenquist knew from his apprenticeship as a sign painter.

Advertising smiles suggest interpretive means quite apart from the formal issues of any work implicit to this imagery. An elaborate interpretation of the advertising smile appears in the writing of Thomas B. Hess. On the basis of the Lucky Strike “T-Zone” of the ’50s and ’40s, Hess inferred the presence of a sexual archetype, the evil or destructive mother, in de Kooning’s first Women series of the 1950s.2 Certainly, the collaged smile of de Kooning’s Women, instead of putting us at ease, can be viewed as ambiguous if not gruesome and threatening.3

In 1962, Rosenquist began to experiment with a loose and arbitrary sculptural arrangement in painting. These “combine” polymorphs relate to concrete biographical events in the artist’s life, and enabled Rosenquist to advance aspects of post-Minimalism before any recognition of the peculiar pictorial and sculptural issues of the style was noted. One can point to Nomad of 1963 with its speckled plastic bag dripping paint on a disordered pile of wood, three versions of pictures caught in the branches of a tree, Catwalk of 1963 which “is merely an idea of walking across a place with lights shining through underneath and it’s supposed to be at high altitude but of course, it’s only like a little puddle or little thing.”4

A striking example is Toaster of 1963. This Tide boxlike construction is filled with plastic grass, through which emerges two serrated circular saw blades. Rosenquist remarks that they are “like two pieces of toast . . . and trying to put your teeth on two sawblades.”5 The construction is loosely bound with barbed wire and Tumbleweed of 1964, like this image, continues to explore aggressive and lacerating, possibly mortifying, tactile effects. An open work of enmeshed barbed wire, Tumbleweed is intertwined with a gestural neon passage supported by an armature of paintsplattered, crossed wood. The Surrealist implications of Rosenquist’s work of this period are clearly recognizable as a function of unanticipated tactile effects, particularly the sharp and spiky. Rosenquist suggests that the introduction of barbed wire as a working material was induced, at least insofar as he can consciously identify, by memories of “animals and grasses hung up on barbed wire fences in North Dakota after floods in the spring.”6

Remarkably, Toaster parallels Lucas Samaras’ Untitled (Face Box) of 1963, one of the artist’s first important series of pin and yarn boxes of the period through 1964. These self-portrait boxes are characteristically covered with prickly and threatening elements—razor blades, pins, nails of all sorts pierced or pricked through his own photo graphic image affixed to the surface of the box, or within the trays set in the boxes. Similarly, numerous recent nude photographic variations of the artist in his book, Samaras Album, continue to exploit these characteristics. Throughout his work, Samaras deals largely with polymorphic sexual inferences of a generally sadomasochistic ambiguousness. In the early ’60s this kind of obsessional material is not only widely found throughout the work of Rosenquist and Samaras, but is also visible in the work of Lee Bontecou, Bruce Conner, and Paul Thek. Bontecou’s metal frame constructions painstakingly wired with small canvas elements are typical. In several of the apertures formed by the metal frames, the artist placed—serration to serration—toothed band saws similar to the rows of circular saws in Rosenquist’s Toaster and the blades, screws, and pins of Samaras’ Boxes. Bontecou’s work occasioned frequent reference to a castration archetype, the vagina dentata (the vagina with teeth), though the artist denies so limited a reading.

It is important to emphasize the relationship of this highly varied body of work to the tactile effects of post-Minimalism. If we take Eva Hesse as a representative figure of post-Minimalism, the models afforded by Samaras and Bontecou cannot be underestimated, since both, unlike Rosenquist, elaborate their art through intricately crafted variations of set obsessional iconography. The prickly wiring of Bontecou’s canvas patch to the iron frame is another example of obsessional, craftbased activity. Again, Samaras’ affixing of space dyed yarn in parallel, rhythmic rows undoubtedly influenced Eva Hesse’s work, and other artists after 1968 whose work reveals clearly compulsive activity. It could well be conceived that this kind of straightforward and simple craft-based activity rendered dubious the traditional supremacy of easel painting, though some would designate this approach to handcraft as merely surrogate brushwork.

Eva Hesse’s consciousness of the problem imposed on women as artists would have made her aware of Bontecou’s success in the early ’60s, but I have not discovered reference to Bontecou in her journals; there is, however, reference to the problem of the woman as artist. To be sure, Hesse was strongly conscious of Lucas Samaras’ work and early critics of post-Minimalism, such as Lucy Lippard, and had bracketed their names.

If Hesse, and now her many followers, picked up on the repetitive, artisanal aspects of Bontecou and Samaras, the anticipatory aspects of Rosenquist’s Tumbleweed were equally influential on several young Californians who were seeking a more open mode of expression. It should also be remembered that Toaster had been reproduced on the cover of the April 1964 issue of Artforum, at that time a West Coast-based magazine, no doubt a contributing factor towards the shift in sensibility. Bruce Nauman used neon early in his spiral maxims and body templates, though his introduction of neon is demonstratively related to an exploration of thematic materials of Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp, rather than of Rosenquist. On the other hand, Richard Serra, associated early in his career with the West Coast and a friend of Nauman’s, directly acknowledges his debt to Rosenquist’s Tumbleweed. Serra’s constructions incorporating neon elicited a strong response when exhibited in a group show at the Goldowsky Gallery in 1967. Several of Serra’s pieces incorporated gestural neon counterpoints to an eccentric rubber structure pinned by twisted nails. An untitled eleven unit piece of 1967, the first element of which contains the neon meander, has often been discussed and is now well known.

Yet another untitled work of 1967, over looked in the growing literature on the artist, is particularly applicable to the present discussion. Like the eleven-unit piece, it is made of neon and rubber belting fixed in place with nails. Despite the apparently elusive nature of its subject, this work seems to play upon a variation of the initials of the artist’s name. In this sense it may be construed to be Nauman-like since Nauman, especially in this period, specifically dealt with neon constructions embodying thematic material derived from measurements of his person or aspects of his persona, such as the letters of his first name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically or, As If It Were Written On the Surface of the Moon, both of 1967. Although there are earlier examples, Sonnier’s Triple Lip of 1969, in which gestural neon loops about two electric light bulbs, can be shown to be partly inspired by this connection. What I am suggesting then is that eccentric and partially unclassified episodes in the art of the early ’60s established and inspired a rejection of Minimalism.

Samaras, unlike Rosenquist, is more explicitly related to the Surrealist context. Like Joseph Cornell, who forms an actual American bridge with the French movement, Samaras continued to exploit the conventional vernacular of Surrealism. Surprisingly, this tradition relates to the work of Salvador Dali during the 1930s, when it would have been hard to dismiss this noted artist as captiously as one does today. Although the molten features of the oneiric elements of Dali’s “hand-painted dream photographs” of the 1930s are of great importance, his sculpture, such as the Tray of Obiects of 1936, is equally note worthy. This work directly exposes objects fetishistically intriguing to the artist and presented with little esthetic arrangement. Within the tray are small erotic sculpture, garments such as gloves and ballet slippers, chalices, puzzles and games—things which later would appeal to the theatrical fantasy of Joseph Cornell, not to mention the fetishistic aspects of Samaras’ Boxes. Dali’s Tray of Objects alludes to Andre Breton’s own artistic efforts, the poem-objects, verbal/visual rebuses of significance to the Surrealist group in exile in the late ’30s and early ’40s.

Samaras continued in this vein through the ’60s. As late as the Chair Transformation of 1970 Samaras remains affiliated with Surrealist thinking, which, above all else, strove to inaugurate psychic liberty through the exploitation of familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts, or in terms of disjunctive sensuous properties. The textbook example is Meret Oppenheim’s Poetical Obiect of 1936, familiarly called the Fur-Lined Tea Cup; the inanimate ceramic object seems to behave as an animate entity, as if it were growing hair. The image violates our sense of function. We shrink from stirring the fur-covered spoon and hesitate to drink from the hair-rimmed cup. Such an elaborate and literary notion is occasional in Rosenquist’s work, but in Samaras’ work it is a formalized convention. Samaras’ Boxes are seen as soft and metamorphic. The Knife Transformations are equally so. The Chair Transformations range from fragile accumulations of artificial flowers to stiff, plaster dripped drapery. The Surrealist myth of metamorphosis is the central issue animating Samaras’ work and it may be because of his rigorous commitment to Surrealism that his work so often appears familiar, despite its recent date.

From the 1930s on, the Surrealists attempted to unify into simple presentations a multiplicity of structural possibilities. These metamorphoses commuted between animal, insect, avian, aquatic, and botanical life. Max Ernst’s Figure of 1931 is a self-evident example.

The dislocation of tactile effect is still another example of late Surrealist activity which continued to find expression in post-Minimalism. Dali’s melting watches in the Persistence of Memory of 1931 are striking because of the disparity between what we know to be true of the molten state, namely, that its liquefaction is a function of extreme heat, and the cool crepuscular atmosphere in which the watches melt. Thus a sense of cool when there ought to be the experience of heat is similar to the unreasonable association of properties in Meret Oppenheim’s work and to a quality of Samaras’ work throughout the 1960s. That the metallic and inanimate watches are being eaten by an army of ants in Dali’s painting indicates that the inorganic become organic. The dislocation between substance and sensuous property is the key to the schizophrenic terror implicit in the work and marks it as a model for Samaras’ variations.

On the basis of his work of the ’30s, Dali has self-aggrandizingly noted that it was he and not Claes Oldenburg who invented soft sculpture although it is really the invention of the illusion of soft sculpture that states the case more exactly. “The ideas of Dada and Surrealism are currently in the process of being repeated monstrously; soft watches have produced innumerable soft objects.”7 Dali’s sculptures of this period, perhaps with the exception of Rainy Taxi of 1937 are in fact primarily hard-surfaced works. However, to develop the relationship between the soft sculpture of Oldenburg and Dali’s work of the 1930s would open up an area which this essay need not cover because Oldenburg’s work has certainly been acknowledged as establishing a key model for post-Minimalism. It is important to note that the retention of aspects of certain Surrealist activities throughout the ’60s is responsible for the additional energy necessary to shift the Minimalist style off base. To this dislocting pressure must be added the conceptual nature of Minimalism. On the basis of this factor alone, the style would have evolved in unimaginable ways not evident in a rigidly formal examination of the Minimalist object in isolation.

Robert Pincus-Witten



1. Robert Pincus-Witten, “Eva Hesse: Post Minimalism to Sublime,” Artforum, November, 1971, p. 36.

2. Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1968, pp. 76–79.

3. No doubt the model for the smile is the Gorgon pediment of the 6th century B.C. at Corfu.

4. Jeanne Siegel, “An Interview with James Rosenquist,” Artforum, June, 1972, p. 32.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Preface to Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 69 New York, 1971, p. 13.