TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2003

SIGN LANGUAGE: JAMES ROSENQUIST IN RETROSPECT

This month, more than forty years after JAMES ROSENQUIST began capturing on canvas the larger-than-life, color-saturated imagery of consumer culture, a major traveling retrospective of his work comes to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. We asked art historian MICHAEL LOBEL to reflect on the thinking behind the big paintings before turning to MARCIA TUCKER, FRANK STELLA, ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, ED RUSCHA, BARBARA KRUGER, DAVID SALLE, and RICHARD PHILLIPS for their thoughts on the artist's influence yesterday and today.

IN 1966, JAMES ROSENQUIST WAS “THE MAN IN THE PAPER SUIT.” Or at least that was the title of a New York magazine profile that chronicled his exploits wearing the brown paper suit he had commissioned the fashion designer Horst to construct for him. Rosenquist wore the outfit to gallery and museum openings and, on one occasion, appeared in it at a panel discussion on Pop art in Toronto, where he shared the stage with media pundit Marshall McLuhan. Although it may have seemed on the surface like nothing more than a one-note joke or gag—a literally flimsy Pop gesture (Rosenquist reportedly obtained the special paper from the Kleenex company)—his paper suit spoke to many of the central concerns treated in his paintings of the time. It reflected on a culture of disposability and planned obsolescence at the same time that it called attention to the lure of novelty and fashion (paradoxically, people took note of the outfit precisely because of its banal material). Rosenquist had already explored the subject of men’s fashion in works such as Necktie, 1961, and 1947, 1948, 1950, 1960, which offer close-up views of various configurations of shirt collars, suit lapels, and neckwear. In these paintings, he focuses on the details of business attire as emblems of postwar American middle-class masculinity while simultaneously using them as abstracted compositional elements. Rosenquist’s persona as a Pop artist was from early on constructed around a very different sort of outfit: the paint-spattered work clothes that he wore while employed as a billboard painter throughout the 1950s (photographs of Rosenquist posing in that uniform appear frequently in the monographic literature on the artist). His workman’s garb stood in sharp contrast to the finely tailored suits worn by the admen on Madison Avenue, even if Rosenquist was effectively connected to the same industry of advertising. In some ways, then, Rosenquist’s paper suit—as picked up on in the title of the New York article—served as a knowing riposte to that emblem of ’50s conformity, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The title character of that novel (portrayed by Gregory Peck in the film) pursued a career, one should note, in public relations.

The paper suit is not, alas, on view in the current retrospective exhibition of Rosenquist’s work. The show, organized by Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, opened in May in Houston (where it was divided between the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts) and travels to the Guggenheim branches in New York and Bilbao. While such a show will no doubt serve the expected task of reaffirming Rosenquist’s status as a major postwar American painter, it also offers us the opportunity to reconsider some of the less immediately visible and perhaps more experimental aspects of his oeuvre. Viewers will certainly be drawn to the big paintings for which Rosenquist has become known. These signature works—monumental in size and generally oriented in horizontal landscape format—combine a dizzying mix of fragmentary images that range from magnified renderings of the female form to depictions of aviation and space travel. Yet the show also features much smaller works that are in their own way of equal importance to Rosenquist’s project—particularly the source collages that the artist assembled as studies for his paintings beginning in the early 1960s. The relation between these small preliminary studies and the much larger finished works offers crucial insight into Rosenquist’s working practice. For if he culled many of the images for the collages from the pages of Life magazine, he took them not from copies picked up at the newsstand but from issues that were a decade or so old. To cite just one example, the front end of the car in the 1961 painting I Love You with My Ford is in fact that of a 1950 model. As he stated in an important 1964 interview with the critic Gene Swenson that appeared in Art News: “I use images from old magazines—when I say old, I mean 1945 to 1955—a time we haven’t started to ferret out as history yet. If it was the front end of a new car there would be people who would be passionate about it, and the front end of an old car might make some people nostalgic.” By bringing to light this feature of Rosenquist’s methods, the collages speak of an artist concerned with the distinctive experience of time in consumer culture. Moreover, with their torn edges, smudges and dabs of paint, and hastily scrawled notations, they are also significantly “artier”—that is to say, more expressive—than the slickly rendered paintings. This perhaps explains why Rosenquist didn’t exhibit the collages until relatively recently (they were first shown as a group at New York’s Gagosian Gallery in 1992). After all, he is part of a generation of artists (which also includes Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol) who were determined to reject the expressive legacy of the Abstract Expressionist painters. Like so many of his peers, Rosenquist took great pains to jettison evidence of the artist’s touch from his work. Yet the collages show just how much effort it took to create paintings that looked machinelike and devoid of expression. If the juxtaposition of found image fragments provided a means early on to move away from expressive abstraction at the same time that it offered a possible way to deconstruct the workings of advertising imagery, in some of Rosenquist’s more recent works the relation between abstraction and commercial figuration seems to have shifted in a new direction. In paintings such as After Berlin II, 1998, and The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light, 2000, it is as if the gleaming surfaces and Day-Glo objects that have for so long been depicted in the artist’s work have been subjected to such radical and dizzying distortions that they have become almost completely abstract.

As with his signature fragmentation of images, the large scale of much of Rosenquist’s work was initially intended to offer the viewer some critical perspective on commercial imagery by calling attention to its numbing blankness. I’m reminded of Arts Magazine reviewer Amy Goldin’s vivid description of Rosenquist’s mammoth, wraparound F-111, 1964–65, at the time of the painting’s first showing, as a “worm’s-eye view, confused, nearly blind, of gross and baffling presences.” Yet one might also feel that at times this monumental size becomes merely an end in itself, serving primarily to confront the viewer with an overwhelming visual experience. It is refreshing, then, to see that some of the artist’s most affecting works of recent years are among his smallest, particularly the “Gift Wrapped Dolls” of the early 1990s. (Yes, each of these is still relatively large at five feet square, but nowhere near the immense size of many of his paintings.) All the hallmarks of Rosenquist’s mature style—the slick rendering, the vibrant Pop colors, the sustained attention to the surfaces of commodity objects—are brought together to imbue these works with an uncanny psychological resonance. The dolls face us with the promise of a look back that is never fulfilled, while the depicted cellophane barrier—interposed between viewer and doll—invokes the frustration of childhood desires. The cellophane wrap is also used to startling painterly effect: In each of these works Rosenquist offers us a recognizable image that nonetheless melts at various points into abstraction. Inasmuch as these paintings give us something different from what we’ve come to expect from the artist—no monumental scale, no jarring juxtaposition of montaged elements—they underscore his frequent willingness to experiment with form.

Another feature of Rosenquist’s practice that may not be so immediately visible in a conventional museum show is his oftentimes rather refreshing disregard for the sanctity of the art object. On several early occasions, Rosenquist completely repainted works he had already exhibited (hence the painting-construction titled Candidate, 1963, repainted as Silo, 1963–64) or destroyed works outright (as with early sculptures such as Untitled [Catwalk] and AD, Soap Box Tree, both 1963). This approach even extends to F-111, that landmark of ’60s art, which is sure to be a centerpiece of the exhibition in New York (the work was not on view in Houston and will not travel to Bilbao). Consider that, according to the artist’s own account, the fifty-one individual panels that comprise the massive eighty-six-foot-long painting were originally intended to be sold off individually, thus effectively destroying the work as a unified whole. During the course of the work’s initial gallery exhibition in 1965, Rosenquist’s dealer Leo Castelli seems to have done just that—sold various panels to individual buyers—until collector Robert Scull intervened and bought back the complete painting, reportedly on the day after the show closed. I, for one, would have preferred the originally planned fragmentation to Scull’s quasi-heroic reconstitution of the work. Its dispersal into numerous collections surely would have tested the mettle of any curator wanting to reassemble the painting for a show such as this one. When exhibited, the work would have inevitably been incomplete, with at least a few panels always missing. The painting would have existed whole only in photographs and remained a fragmentary presence, which, like the artist’s paper suit, would have attested to the more fleeting qualities of Rosenquist’s art.

Michael Lobel is assistant professor of art history at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.