Los Angeles

James Rosenquist

Dwan Gallery

As slippery, agreeable and conventional as an ad man at a client’s party, Rosenquist nevertheless makes us aware of his attitudes in his big chopped-up ads and billboard sections. He persistently presents a picture of harebrained noninvolvement, sneaking in his comment so quietly that we are never certain we have not made it up for ourselves. His is a world of inescapable superficiality.

He necessarily comments upon a dead idea . . . Shaw said that was the fate of those who comment. He talks of a world created by vulgar advertising. But after all there is another world of advertising that is tenaciously tasteful and art-oriented. Rosenquist is not interested because he pretends not to be interested in art. His comments become current by association. Two large panels that derive from old “T-zone” ads become current by their association with the lung cancer fuss. They are about a big pretty lie from a day for which we might long, a day when the simple pleasure of smoking was not accompanied by a reasonable certainty that we are committing suicide in the process. Nobody can say for sure that this is Rosenquist’s idea. He doesn’t force it.

Any estimate slips maddeningly off the mark. More clearly than any of his deadpan soulmates, Lichtenstein or Warhol or Rauschenberg, Rosenquist is a purist of denial who only affirms that things are, or were, bright, phony and impersonal. If we cannot be sure he is concerned with cancer we can be sure he is with consumption. Mass consumption of artificial goods. Every work is of artificial stuff (he delights in the obviously heightened color of canned fruit salad) made even more artificial by use of a technique as rigid as that of the Egyptians; the ad technique whose basic tenet is “Thou shalt not offend.” The purity that is his necessarily reminds us of other artistic purists but Rosenquist will not be cornered. A painting showing a hand holding a piece of Swiss cheese might make one think he was interested in spatial play but he cuts the whole thing up like a jigsaw puzzle and reaffirms the flat. What holds him about the head of Joan Crawford in a cigarette ad fragment is not the roundness of the orbs or the sculptural quality of her cheekbones but the machine-like phoniness of its split lids and its mouth of plastic smoothness.

Rosenquist accepts esthetics as snobbery, and anger as absurd. If his energetic color reminds you of Stuart Davis, he makes it clear that these bright things are not of his making, they are the result of one impression of a color-plate in a set of progressive proofs.

Do we see a snide reference to his view of Abstract Expressionism in certain backgrounds and in a carelessly left paint rag? Rosenquist will not cop out. Is he interested in a refined shape? He makes spaghetti and Crawford’s hair out of the same stuff. Finally we begin to sink into the mood. Finally we are assured that we can be carefree because everything is made of plastic . . . even plastic we can eat. Then we begin to get a little sick. We think Rosenquist has prodded us to it with that menacing chromium fork of his. Prodded us where we are no longer capable of being shocked. That’s pretty good.

William Wilson