New York

James Rosenquist

Whitney Museum of American Art

It is customary to think of James Rosenquist as the most surrealistic of the Pop artists, but if thats so, I think the surrealism is a veneer on something more drastic: his inability to make the surreal (unconscious, metaphoric, secretly essential) connection between the blatantly given, metonymically disparate elements in his paintings. Yes, there are the usual sexual tricks, what with a decades-long hang-up on castration, visible as early as Vestigial Appendage, 1962. Appendages dangle in Fahrenheit 1982, 1982, where phallic fountain pen nib and female fingernail become one, in a minor masterpiece of sensual surplus. But the real thing in Rosenquist’s work is the sensuality of technology, including the female, that highly crafted doll (Rosenquist never got over his billboard concept of glamour)—and that doesn’t work. In Horse Blinders, 1968–69, and Area Code, 1970, the telephone cable is torn, the inner wires (nerves) exposed. In Wings for Arthur Kopit, 1979, the connective string is a rather slender means of communication between the wings.

Rosenquist is about the failure of communication, the failure of those big, upfront, billboard sign-pictures, the ultimate in extroverted media, to communicate, not their secret unconscious successes (which are just another sign of failure, of taking a joke seriously) The popular media don’t work: that’s his message. This puts a new light on the “mystery” of early Rosenquist: it’s really about the absence of mystery. Signs are just signs, they don’t signal anything; they’re just material on the cultural conveyor belt, fussy packaging on the plain meaning. Rosenquist’s message is no-message, not even form as message, although yes, there’s a veneer of that, especially in such razor-sliced surface works as Embrace I and II, both 1983. Indeed, Rosenquist was never anything more than a newfangled version of an old American Realist, offering slices of life like slices of pie. He is part of the American transparency of it all, no irony intended.

Where Rosenquist once made pictures by piling image building blocks upon one another, he is now operating on them like a surgeon. I think his operations are highly successful—there are the patient’s parts, neatly laid out and self-evident—but he is telling us that the patient is dead. His pictures are morgues in which the parts of the patient are laid out as in an autopsy. Rosenquist has always tried hard to be a visionary; ever since F-111, 1965, he seems to have thought the overblown billboard was a cosmos. But even this early work already had the same color-coded, “cracked” veneer as a hospital: who would know Death is moving through it with the speed of light, for He’s got a Joseph’s coat on. The colorfulness of it all seems to block out the deft incisions and nasty smell. I’m not sure which I prefer, the moody early works, with the smell of decay coming through and the cuts not so precise, or the later work, where the smell is as cosmeticized as the image of the pseudoeternal female that infects us all.

Donald Kuspit