PRINT September 2017


James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist, Cologne, 1972. Photo: Angelika Platen.

JAMES ROSENQUIST helped define an era—even as he undid its imagery from within. His cool handling of advertising and media made him one of the key figures of the Pop movement in the US and contributed to the distinctive look of American art in the 1960s; he depicted motifs redolent of the postwar period, from Marilyn Monroe and JFK to automobiles and processed foodstuffs. But while many are inclined to view Pop as an art that unequivocally celebrated the new, Rosenquist took a more nuanced stance by playing with time and history from the very start. In fact, his signature paintings employed images at least a decade old, many of which he found in back issues of Life magazine. He extended these preoccupations to the performative realm in the mid-’60s, when he appeared at public events in a paper suit constructed by the fashion designer Horst—a symbol of disposability and obsolescence if ever there was one.

The paper suit was a trade-in, of sorts, for the paint-spattered overalls Rosenquist had sported before he became a Pop artist. He famously spent most of the ’50s as a billboard painter, first in his native Midwest and later in New York City, where he labored at nosebleed heights for companies like General Outdoor Advertising and the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation. He pursued parallel tracks, studying fine art first at the University of Minnesota and then at the Art Students League of New York (where he trained with the legendary George Grosz, among others), all the while getting on-the-job training in commercial techniques, rendering everything from the Hebrew National logo to Schenley whiskey bottles to sundry Hollywood stars (Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Joanne Woodward) at Brobdingnagian proportions. Unlike contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, who tended to employ a host of artistictools—stencils, silk screens—to reproduce media imagery, Rosenquist had commercial techniques literally at his fingertips. The unique experience of having to paint mammoth images while pressed up almost to their very surfaces led Rosenquist to be more interested in the duration of perception than in any instantaneous legibility. This propensity was expressed in his recurrent use of fragmentary images and extreme close-ups, as well as his inclination to work at the border between figuration and abstraction, as in his memorable “Gift Wrapped Dolls” of the early ’90s, in which a series of expressionless faces, trapped behind cellophane, dissolve into florid brushstrokes.

After rendering some of his earliest Pop paintings predominantly in grisaille, Rosenquist quickly emerged as an inventive colorist, most notably with the acid fluorescents and Day-Glo hues of F-111, 1964–65, a piece that certainly qualifies as the artist’s magnum opus. He executed that eighty-six-foot-long multipanel behemoth of a picture for his first outing at Leo Castelli Gallery—where it encircled viewers in a wraparound hanging—and it eventually made its way into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The work is routinely taken as a direct commentary on the Vietnam War. When Rosenquist painted it, however, the titular plane had still not been flown in combat; it was in its testing phase, beset by mechanical malfunctions and cost overruns. It was a perfect subject for Rosenquist, then, in that this particular piece of military hardware already appeared obsolete—a historical artifact—before it was ever deployed. As such, the painting is a far broader indictment of the military-industrial complex and its hold on the US economy, one that very much retains its relevance today. In one of the more cogent commentaries on the picture, critic Amy Goldin, writing in Arts Magazine in 1965, opined that “this is not an all-embracing vision of an integrated process, but a worm’s-eye view, confused, nearly blind, of gross and baffling presences.”

Rosenquist’s eschewal of simple narrative content and his corresponding embrace of pictorial fragmentation, wide swings in scale, and discordant juxtapositions were all part of a deliberate strategy. In his 2009 autobiography, the artist wrote: “From early on I developed an attraction for the incongruous. I had no wish to try to resolve visual contradictions. I felt that aesthetic disparities were actually questions, questions that I did not need to answer.” While in my own book on Rosenquist, also published in 2009, I fulfilled my scholarly obligation by dutifully interpreting some of his best-known Pop paintings, in retrospect I recognize that I may not have fully accounted for this aspect of his work. Over the past year, as we have found ourselves under a near-constant barrage of unsettling news, arriving in fragmentary bursts, Rosenquist’s aesthetic of incongruity has felt all too relevant and resonant.

Michael Lobel is a professor of art history at Hunter College in New York. His most recent book is John Sloan: Drawing on Illustration (Yale University Press, 2014).