New York

James Rosenquist

Leo Castelli Gallery Uptown

Ten years ago Lucy Lippard commented that James Rosenquist seemed to stand on the verge of the nonobjective. His latest set of drawings shows him even closer to the nonobjective, and further away from the huge juxtapositions of Pop images which make up paintings like the F-111.

Rosenquist has always claimed to be concerned with avoiding collage; this movement away from the figurative in his work also may be part of the movement away from mere juxtaposition. Certainly the new sketches were unified more schematically than Rosenquist’s previous work. It was a unity more self-consciously painterly than in his earlier work, although the imagery is drawn largely from the Rosenquist of the past.

There is still the same aggressiveness and even violence which has always seemed a feature of Rosenquist’s work, the flashing of images in huge scale, the rubbing of the viewer’s nose in cliché details from the world of advertising. Wind and Lightning, however, refers to much more abstract and almost expressionistic shapes in the drawings. This can go alongside such advertising icons—now rendered less literally—as the tangled orbs of an atom symbol or the little close-up cluster of color dots taken from color TV ads.

Rosenquist’s interest here seemed to be chiefly in marks on the paper as traces of real objects now departed, as clues left from some encounter between three-dimensional objects and the flat paper. Spray stenciling or spray tracing and cutouts pasted on are key techniques. No longer do we see the rosy-cheeked girl from the billboard; now we see a large rouge pad bursting through the paper, larger than life. We don’t see tailfins of big cars, but tire tracks, as if the vehicle had been in the studio and just driven away.

In a sense Rosenquist seems to be going backward toward painters like Johns and Rauschenberg when he embeds a flag behind flaps of paper or has a reduced-size ladder flopping half cut out of the paper, half part of it. Rosenquist treats groups of nails in a variant of Dine’s method of tracing tools onto canvas or paper. Nails have been a key element in the imagery of Rosenquist’s work for the last few years and have a long history as literary symbol in modern painting. The trompe l’oeil nail in the Cubist painting asserts a plane behind that of the canvas. Dine’s or Rauschenberg’s physical nails hold things on the flat canvas, or suspend them out from it. But Rosenquist’s nails are here shown sideways, in spray-painted silhouette, larger than life size. They hang there in the space of the paper, leaving their trace rather than asserting their presence in three dimensions.

Other self-conscious references are more overt: Rosenquist pencils labels beside elements in the picture. One element which asserts the paper’s flatness against the recession of some shapes sketched on it is labeled “aperture anchor.” In place of the sound it would have made, a dinner triangle is stenciled on the paper, accompanied by its handwritten name.

These sketches seem to mark Rosenquist’s shift to another mode of work, and while some of what they attempt is played out, they may also represent an artist in search of an alternative that may surprise us.

Phil Patton