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Rosenquist’s Rouge

ROY LICHTENSTEIN IS A Pop artist. Andy Warhol is a Pop artist. But James Rosenquist is not a Pop artist: he made no use of Jasper Johns’ “Flags.” The “Flags” offer lessons in how to contain Jackson Pollock’s fields of energy, how to turn their troubled sprawl into an affect-less spread of stylishness. That is what Warhol learned from Johns. I would say that Rosenquist learned directly from Pollock, but you don’t learn from Pollock. You confront him, which Rosenquist did and still does.

Confronting Pollock is a thankless task. Certainly no one has sufficiently praised the herculean finesse with which Rosenquist exchanged the pulse of Pollock’s allover gesture for the allover churning of immense image fragments—chunks of the inert presences, the ad and movie and news pictures, that clog our emotional atmosphere. All Rosenquist ever got for that transformation from gesture to image was a place in the Pop roster somewhere behind Warhol and Lichtenstein.

Rosenquist draws directly on Pollock because his anxieties are as vast and immediate as Pollock’s—anxieties negotiable in art as doubts about the force of an individual gesture. Pollock responded to those doubts by elaborating his gesture into a field of its own: not gesture in the world, but gesture as world. Twenty-one years ago, in the February 1964 issue of Artnews, Rosenquist dismissed his own Action Painting of the 1950s as sunk in “nature”—lost in the textures of paint and canvas and in the unconscious idiosyncrasies of his painterly gesture. He wanted to get away from “nature” into the culture which civilizes us or leaves us barbarous, which supplies us with a memory or, with its rush of images, turns us into amnesiacs. The impatience with "nature’ took him beyond Pollock into the currents of modern space. His allover fields reflect—and reflect on—the clutter that adds up to the emptiness of American space. Postwar consumerist space. Modern space, home of space junk.

Rosenquist’s fields of displaced objects, gleaming gorgeously, recall for us the story, the spectacle, the operatic extravaganza of our constant forgetting. They immerse us in our love of the expendable and remind us that, along with the contents of history, the very notion of the past could easily be mislaid—as in a dream of “nature.” And the past would take the future with it. Rosenquist tempts us into an absolute present where shape is sheer shape. Then it becomes a portion of a clothed body or a piece of advanced machinery—though there isn’t any flesh visible or any clue to the mechanism’s purpose. He tempts us, too, with the hope that the body might turn out to be indistinguishable from technology, our emotions a manageable kind of static. Then shape begins to fade as the pleasures of color begin to build. It’s like giving in to a tropical sunset—or, better yet, to the rhetoric of a sunset in a movie about the tropics. Rosenquist’s art is a kind of test: are you ready to look at your feelings? Or just to feel them? Rosenquist lets you have it your way.

Layer one poster over another, then tear it away. Part of it sticks. The first poster-image mingles with the second, as in Torn Movie Poster, 1930, by Walker Evans. Now Rosenquist recalls that effect with paintings that slice up their images and send them across the canvas in narrow strips. Ripped posters have rough edges. Rosenquist’s latterday patterns are needle-sharp, with edges like razors. Points and edges together suggest claws or fangs. Sometimes one set of image-fangs overlays another. Sometimes they interweave, always with a precision that does away with the need for pictorial depth.

The pictures Rosenquist makes are flat. Some of the pictures he uses reach into the make-believe distance with all the shameless yearning of a postcard skyline or a greeting card laden with orchids from the rain forest’s edge. Often a model’s face, the kind of smile you see in ads for shampoo or cosmetics, beams through the interwoven patterns of Rosenquist’s recent canvases. Maybe the artist opposes the stabbing violence of his zigzags to the blandness of those faces. Maybe he equates them. Immersion in Rosenquist’s paintings is like immersion in the world’s image flow. You feel wired in and blanked out. There is one difference. With the gratuitous brilliance of their circuitry, so much more complex than the market demands, Rosenquist's paintings supply an extra buzz, the jolt that reminds us that culture is a matter of circuitry, a tangle of ganglions, and that our own are entangled with it.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic who lives in New York.

The exhibition “James Rosenquist Paintings 1961–85” is at the Denver Art Museum until July 14. The show travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (Aug. 24–Oct. 20); the Des Moines Art Center (Nov. 29, ’85–Jan. 26, ’86); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (Mar. 14–May 4, ’86); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (June 26–Sept. 21, ’86); and the National Museum of American Art, Washington. D.C. (Oct. 24. ’86–Jan. 11 ’87). Judith Goldman’s James Rosenquist, New York: Viking, 1985, serves as the catalogue for the show.