• James Rosenquist, Car Touch, 1966, oil on two shaped canvases, 88 x 74” overall.

    James Rosenquist, Car Touch, 1966, oil on two shaped canvases, 88 x 74” overall.

    James Rosenquist

    The Menil Collection
    1533 Sul Ross Street
    May 17–August 17, 2003

    As an art student at the University of Minnesota, James Rosenquist found work painting grain elevators and storage tanks. He also learned the billboard painter’s trade and later, as a Pop artist, made art of images scaled up to the hypervisibility of the signage along America’s highways and in its big cities. Soon after his first show at New York’s Green Gallery, in 1962, Rosenquist emerged as the sole practitioner of what might be called the Times Square sublime—in contrast to the abstract sublime of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

    Organized by Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, the Houston exhibitions—early works at the Menil Collection, later ones at the MFA—contain nearly two hundred canvases, prints, and other works on paper (and even a few sculptures) from every stage of his Rosenquist’s career. At the New York Guggenheim, the two shows will merge and be joined by F-111, 1965, which Rosenquist described at the time of its making as a comment on advanced technologies—some of which, he said, “seemingly can’t be dealt with, they’re so sophisticated.” Many have seen F-111 as a protest against the Vietnam War, yet it is also about our immersion—possibly our complicity—in the currents that shape our society. F-111 is a walk-in painting. Ten feet high and eighty-six feet wide, it covered four walls when it first went on view, at the uptown Castelli Gallery. Often shown flat since then, it will return to its original format at the Guggenheim.

    Like Roy Lichtenstein, Rosenquist had a secret life in the late 1950s as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. Hopps and Bancroft have included a handful of canvases from that period. A more startling revelation is a large selection of Rosenquist’s rarely seen collages. With their elements often stapled, not pasted, in place, these preparatory studies have the look of sheer speculation. Each of them says: This is how a painting might be. More often than not, the painting turns out otherwise, sometimes drastically so.

    Rosenquist’s days up on a billboard painter’s scaffold, eye to eye with Mount Rushmore–sized faces, left him with a feeling for the abstraction that lurks in even the most realistic image. This, plus his monumental knack for sending pictorial energy drifting, cascading, and roiling across his canvases, is what gives him more in common with Jackson Pollock than with any of the other Pop artists. Hopps remembers seeing Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil, 1988, in Rosenquist’s Aripeka, Florida, studio. He could make out the needle, the anvil, and a few other hard-edged objects. But what, he asked the artist, are those vast, flickering passages of black and white paint? “Jim leaned over,” Hopps recalls, “and whispered in my ear, ‘That’s chaos.’”

    Carter Ratcliff

    “James Rosenquist” will be on view at the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 17–Aug. 17; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct.–Jan. 2004; Guggenheim Bilbao, July 2004–Oct. 2004; other venues TBA.