New York

James Rosenquist

Leo Castelli Gallery

Like the work of his fellow Pop artists, the paintings James Rosenquist made during the 1960s rendered symbols and objects that seemed vulgar to many viewers. Rosenquist was singular among his contemporaries in that the manner of his paintings was meant every bit as ironically, was in fact as much a vulgar thing, as their subjects were. Rauschenberg and Johns suffused America’s popular visual landscape in melancholy collage and expressive brushwork. Emerging a few years later, Rosenquist represented bright red lips, trademarks, soap flakes-box children and the F-111 with the same heightened realism and saturated color that had previously been part of his craft as a billboard painter. Thus while his paintings were hardly styleless, his manner was much less brought to his subjects than found in them.

In this way, form and content became uniquely fused in Rosenquist’s pictures. Where a formal change would indeed cause a change in the content of any artist’s work, in Rosenquist’s it seems that a change in form would have caused his content to evaporate. His material was so dependent for its meaning on billboard realism and billboard color that it was not susceptible to the kind of formal play through which his contemporaries’ work has continued to evolve.

Rosenquist thus limited the options through which he could continue to paint. His current show indicates that, so far, he has chosen not to discard his literal and vivid manner of painting, but has turned to somewhat more obscure subjects than those of his previous work, and has placed these in still stranger juxtapositions than those he became famous for. Nothing in the new pictures is actually unfamiliar, but few things in them are such major symbols as were the F-111, ’50s Fords, business suits, creamy legs and the atomic bomb. His current concerns (which include industrial machinery, bottles, a mattress without sheets and benign objects like the window of a clapboard house) are thrown into an obviously contrived mysteriousness through peculiar combinations and huge exaggerations of scale.

While violent juxtapositions were conspicuous in Rosenquist’s earlier work, visual punning or shared allusive meaning would often mitigate an implausible coupling of objects. Thus mushroom cloud, umbrella and hair dryer are bound together in F-111 (1965) by their similar shapes. In a more important way, the F-111 itself and the delighted child in front of it are ironically made comparable as shiny trophies of a glib, ostensibly happy society. Such commonality of shape or connotation seldom occurs in Rosenquist’s new pictures, whose juxtapositions thus come closer to those of traditional surrealism. Yet these new works may be distinguished from the most characteristic surrealism by their lack of concern with parable or with any illusion of real space.

The juxtapositions in Rosenquist’s new paintings project a distinctly sinister sense. In Industrial Cottage enormous drill bits loom below a clapboard porch; their size alludes directly to the force with which they can maul and grind the very wood of which the porch is built. At the opposite end of the same painting, gargantuan strips of bacon hang from clothespins against a fraying ganglion of electrical wire. A high tension-line tower appears through a simple window. The “industrial cottage” is in fact a cottage dismembered. Apart from the painfully obvious equation of industry with brutality, one gets a clear sense of mutilation and shocked nerves. As in all of Rosenquist’s new works, simple items are pushed to the edge of the grotesque.

The same grimness is apparent in Terrarium, whose sheetless mattress and white faced woman behind empty bottles suggest some desolating event,perhaps a tawdry seduction. It is even apparent in a somewhat humorous picture in which a car interior is being flooded with cake batter. Generally, however, comedy is absent from Rosenquist’s new works. Of course, grotesquery has always been a central quality in his work (witness the black humor of F-111), but now it is coming to us undiluted. This grimness is also increased because objects more benign than ever are being made to carry it, and there is, finally, a disparity between these subjects and the old role they are being made to fit. The exaggerated scale and couplings on which the new pictures rely so heavily suggest that the fitting has been difficult, and that Rosenquist may still be awaiting a really substantial development in his work.

Leo Rubinfien