PRINT October 2003

Richard Phillips

Rosenquist’s paintings presented me with the most radical idea of what Pop art could be. Even more than Warhol or Rauschenberg, Rosenquist brings both a kind of beauty and an idea of the spectacular into his pictures. I’m thinking back to the early paintings, those super-surreal, phenomenally disorienting images that seem critical of a media-based society. But I also think of his show at Leo Castelli in 1993, with paintings of dolls in wrappers. For me, that was a break from what is commonly understood about Rosenquist, and took place at a moment when painting had been put in a difficult position by events like Jeff Koons’s “Banality” show (1988), which shed such a harsh light on consumerism in art and entertainment. At the time, a lot of painting was attempting to be critical but served only as a kind of retrograde entertainment. Rosenquist’s work, on the other hand, with its sign-painting history, wasn’t divested of its own physical and critical position. Rosenquist bore down on a specific and perverse reality. He used a singular iconic image—upending his own process, you could say—to get beyond the literal meaning of pictures. It’s not about advertising; it’s about the enormous image blowing away meaning, putting the experience of paint right up front. The incredible opacity of that was very inspiring. In a way, Rosenquist is the original punk. I mean, he showed up for interviews wearing a paper suit! And at every point, he sets up a critical relationship with the insulation of imagery in mechanized and commercialized society, taking imagery beyond the point of recognizable intentionality.

When you look at early writing on his work, you see that he was often considered cynical or conservative—basically because his painting was all about unsettled meaning, and people didn’t understand his fragmentary language. But Rosenquist is a real stepping-off point for work today. His image combinations ask you to find relationships among those images and to create another space within your own mind. I think he called it a “psychic projection screen.” It’s a kind of psychic realism, which he originated in the terms of an American Pop media sensibility. And I feel like one of painting’s real possibilities right now is to address that realism.

Richard Phillips’s new paintings will be shown at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, in January 2004.