PRINT March 2002


James Rosenquist

Alexi Worth recounts the series of visits Richard Bellamy made to James Rosenquist’s studio in the months leading up to his first one-man show, at Bellamy’s Green Gallery in February 1962.

JAMES ROSENQUIST, a headstrong twenty-two-year-old from Minneapolis, arrived in New York in 1955. After a year at the Art Students League his money ran out, so he took a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy couple who provided room and board, along with a studio where he could make his smeary impastoed abstractions. It was a comfortable situation—no expenses, plenty of time to paint—and it’s easy to imagine a young artist settling into it. But Rosenquist was restless. In Minnesota he had worked summers painting billboards; now he applied to Local 230 of the International Sign and Pictorial Painters Union and got his first assignment, painting a Hebrew National Salami ad on Flatbush Avenue.

For the next three years he worked all over the city. In a union dominated by middle-aged Italians, he was an oddball. Glaringly young, blond, and disproportionately talented, he rose quickly to become head painter. Surviving photographs of Rosenquist on scaffolding have a Tom Sawyerish glamour, but in fact the work was repetitive and dangerous. In 1959, after two painters fell to their death, Rosenquist quit and rented a studio in Coenties Slip, on a now all but vanished three-block strip that has been called Manhattan’s Bateau-Lavoir.

Sign painting had given him skills that no other young artist had. The other Coenties artists—among them Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, and Robert Indiana (Rauschenberg and Johns lived a couple of blocks away, on Pearl Street)—reinforced Rosenquist’s growing impatience with the prevailing AbEx aesthetic. In the new studio, he began collecting magazine images and stapling them to the wall, making small photocollages. Enlarging those fragments to billboard scale re-created a sensation that Rosenquist had first had while working on his commercial jobs: of being suspended in the middle of an image, in effect immersed in it, so that a commonplace visual texture—hair or skin or fabric—became unrecognizable, Brobdingnagian, mysterious.

The first dealer to see the “soft, close-up imagery” of these first half-dozen Pop paintings was the Upper East Side gallerist Allan Stone, who dropped by in mid-1961. It was the only false start of Rosenquist’s career. As the artist remembers it, Stone was positive, but vague. “He was reading the newspaper and kind of halfway glancing at the pictures. He said, ‘I’d like to hang one of those in my office. . . in about a year or so.’” lleana Sonnabend, who came along with Stone, was more enthusiastic, but she didn’t yet have a gallery. The same was true of Ivan Karp (soon to be named director of Leo Castelli), who visited the Coenties studio shortly afterward. At this point, things get muddy: Did Karp bring Richard Bellamy—another gallery director with a famously sharp eye—on a subsequent visit? Or did Bellamy come on his own initiative? Either way, Bellamy showed up. A week later he came back with the collector Robert Scull. As Rosenquist remembers it, “Scull came in and says, ‘Oh, fantastic! Wonderful! A great American spirit,’ and he walked out the door.” Rosenquist didn’t know it, but this odd, almost furtive appearance was pivotal. With Scull, Bellamy’s financial backer, on board, Rosenquist’s career was on the move.

The next week, Bellamy said he’d like to bring some more collectors, Burton and Emily Tremaine. “So they came down, and this old lady wearing Lolita glasses said, ‘I’d like to buy. . . that one.’ And Dick says, ‘I’m sorry, it’s already sold to Bob Scull.’” Rosenquist was taken aback, and not just because he hadn’t been told about the Scull sale. “I took Dick aside and said ‘I don’t want to sell them.’” Bellamy, the least mercantile of art dealers, had to persuade the wary young artist that selling paintings was a good idea. “Think it over,” he concluded. A few months later, in February 1962, Rosenquist’s first solo opened at Bellamy’s Green Gallery, with all but one of the paintings already spoken for. Looming ahead were the now mythic group exhibitions—beginning the same year with “The New Realists” at Sidney Janis and, in 1963, “Sixteen Americans” at MoMA and “Six Painters and the Object” at the Guggenheim—which would provide a context for the coolly flamboyant aesthetic that Rosenquist had pioneered in his Coenties studio. But that afternoon, none of this was apparent. The future looked promising, but blank. Rosenquist and his friend Ray Donarski set up a whiskey-only bar for the opening. And then the two of them sat down on the gallery floor, waiting, “wondering if anybody would show up.”

Alexi Worth is a writer living in New York.