PRINT April 1994


Imagine living on the edge of the world—literally (Vancouver)—and attending a small elementary school in a remote suburb next to a forest, beyond which there is nothing except forest and alps and tundra and ice for thousands of miles until the North Pole, which itself is nothing in particular. Next stop after that: again literally, Siberia.

Imagine the year is 1970 and you are eight years old. Imagine that you have no religion. Imagine the houses that you and your friends live in are all built by contractors and furnished with dreams provided by Life magazine. Imagine you inhabit a world with no history.

Imagine, then, attending this elementary school on the edge of the world, opening a copy of the encyclopedia, and finding, under “Art,” the long thin panel of a certain painting: James Rosenquist’s F-111. It contains images of: an angel food cake, tinned spaghetti, the words “U.S. AIR FORCE,” a nuclear explosion, a Firestone tire, and others, all splashed across the length of an F-111 fighter plane. All these images are painted in bright, even shocking colors—these images that flow daily inside your head, now all recontextualized in a seductive, validated, World Book-ified context. (Fun fact: my computer’s grammar-check function tells me to “avoid jargon words like RECONTEXTUALIZED.” And right it is!) There is even a young girl, roughly your own age, beneath a hair dryer. She’s probably the star of her own ABC After School Special.


Andy Warhol, a discovery I made shortly afterward, said that once you saw the world as Pop you could never look at it the same way again. Absolutely true. My earliest family memories are of young Douglas cutting up Life magazines (bought for 25 cents a piece at a local secondhand bookstore) and pasting fragments of pictures back together—making Rosenquists—to annoy his brothers and baffle his parents. (Ahhh, post-Modernism.) The best Life years for Rosenquist-style montages were from about 1948 to 1962. That’s when the imagery was at its most generic, it’s Gappiest—when Guns N’ Butter were roaring ahead full blast. In 1955 it was not an issue for Hormel or Van Kamp’s to spend x thousand dollars to show a full-page photo of “ham.” (Quotation marks around the word “ham” seem distinctly . . . 1994.)

We emerge from our mother’s womb an unformated Macintosh diskette; our culture formats us.

I remember howls of Campbell’s vegetable soup; beach balls; astronauts;swing sets; wood-paneled station wagons. Even by 1970 it all seemed somewhat extreme, but it was big and sexy and full of money—Pop!—and best of all, it was generic. The generic postulates an ideal—something that was, if not missing, then rather beside the point on the edge of the world in 1970.

These Life-ish images are now, of course, the images that have come to define the probably-never-existed-anyway norm of cold war boom culture. Dad smoking a pipe, mom in an apron—it’s beyond a joke, in fact it’s no longer even worth being ironic about. And if irony itself seems to be on shaky ground these days, ironists, seeking ever more obscure tactics, of necessity have to pooh-pooh the clumsier, more puppylike ironic thrusts of Pop. This, of course, demands a revision of Pop. Was the movement ironic? Was Andy all irony? Was Rosenquist ever at all ironic? Who was sincere . . . if anyone? And which artists will emerge from this neo-Marxist theorizing intact?

It’s nearing 25 years since I first saw F-111, and I have never actually seen the work “in person.” (Missed it at the Whitney; eternal grief.) I have only seen it, in varying sizes and gatefolds, in hooks and magazines throughout the years. It’s always amusing to see the ways these publications try to deal with the painting’s awkward dimensions. Trying to imagine its size and luxuriousness is part of the experience, though other Rosenquists I have seen “in person”—the earlier ones—have surprised me with their guckiness. Muck abounds; there are dribbles; the masking tape is ripped away, revealing unclean lines. Only Rosenquist’s later works have the seamlessness that the earlier works seem to have been dreaming of.

Rosenquist was always the hardest Pop painter to find information on. I remember once seeing a photo of New York’s art-collecting Scull family (see Warhol’s Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times) eating dinner in front of a Rosenquist, Silver Skies (more Firestone tires plus a goose’s head)—a painting located in the Scull family’s dining room. I thought to myself, This is a family that does not live next to the wilderness in a world with no history. Who is this family? What do they believe in? Do they have religion? On Sundays do Mr. and Mrs. Scull take the kids out to see F-111? And afterward do they lunch at Le Cirque with the girl under F-111’s hairdryer (and her agent)?

If you look at the work of the Pop artists, much of it seems to be dreaming of some future day when human ideas can be more readily mediated by machines. Jasper Johns’ and Robert Rauschenberg’s muckiest creations scream Photoshop software; Warhol is a pure endorsement of the color laser printer, 25 years in advance. Last December I was in San Francisco visiting Colossal Pictures, the Terminator 2/Liquid Television digital-animation studio. A producer and I got to discussing our favorite artists, and when Rosenquist’s name came up I said that someday I’d like to do a “Rosenquist Simulator”—a PC-TV product that would cut, paste, fade, and dissolve whatever nontext TV channels were on at any given moment in order to generate an endless living Rosenquist for the living room wall. He said it wouldn’t he a difficult thing to do.

In 1993, trying to come up with a cover design for a book I was working on, I mentioned the idea of doing images of Franco-American spaghetti, à la Rosenquist. The art director, 24, said to me, “Who?” This moment crystallized a seed worry that had been lying dormant in me for perhaps the past five years: the fear that we are entering an era when ideas like Modernism and Modern art are deemed not only antique but irrelevant and, even more humiliating and frightening, discardable. (That darn revisionism.) Much of my faith in the future—most of my faith in the future—has been invested, however wittingly, in the world of art, and Modern art at that. It was through art that I ultimately came to learn that “no history” is in itself history—possibly history’s most liberating and uncruel form. (You sentimentalize bourgeois consumption patterns; you must be punished.)

In the end? I think all the Pop artists loved the subjects they painted. Detachment, what there was of it, was a put-on. Pop artists loved the machine that formated the diskette that was them. F-111 says to me, Love the machine that formated the diskette that is you.

Culture ho.