New York

James Rosenquist

Gagosian Gallery (21)

James Rosenquist has always been in a class of his own within Pop art, never quite boarding the Warholian media-imagery bandwagon. While appropriating banal all-American imagery, he combines it in an incongruous way suggestive of a Surrealist esthetic that is particularly reminiscent of René Magritte. That is, Rosenquist’s early pictures—which this exhibition justifiably suggests have become “classic”—reflect neither the slick irony, inadvertent black humor, nor obsession with fame-seeking associated with Pop art; rather, they seem mysterious and unfathomable, even thirty years after they were made. Not only do they continue to look ingeniously unintelligible, but their nightmarish character has become clear.

In A Lot to Like, 1962, erratic shards of commonplace imagery—a football player, a man’s suit jacket, a single-edged razor blade, a black umbrella, a hand combing hair, a man’s naked back, etc.—are combined in a montagelike manner suggestive of a B-movie, despite all the technical niceties that bring them together in the same frame. The virtue of a B-movie, as of all kitsch entertainment, lies in the superficiality of action and emotion, allowing one to enter mindlessly into the fantasy it constructs. But it requires a great effort to figure out the fantasy in a typical Rosenquist spectacle, even when, as in For Young Revolutionaries, 1962, it seems to have to do with assassination, or, as in Morning Sun, 1963, it seems like a satiric rejoinder to the American version of the beautiful face that launched a thousand ships. In other words, Rosenquist takes fragments of an already given collective fantasy and uses them to unnameable, even ineffable effect, suggesting that there is something beyond what its manufactured surface reveals.

Through his cunning manipulation of its details, Rosenquist both mimics and mocks the seductiveness and unconscious power of this fantasy. He seems to dissect it anatomically and, by shattering it, distances himself from it. At the same time, he telescopically enlarges each detail so that it feels as if each is bearing down on us, becoming hypnotically gross. Taken together, they seem to belong to an unspecifiable magical whole bigger than any of them, however spectacular they are in themselves. Indeed, Rosenquist creates the effect of some grand, consummate, engulfing, incomprehensible collective fantasy, emblematic of the society that grips us all in its monstrous maw. A society all the more horrific and engrossing because the details sometimes seem like synechdoches of different fantasies: combined in the same frame, these details suggest that whatever way we turn we cannot escape this manipulation of our deepest desires, its control of our fantasy life. Thus, in shattering the prosaic whole of a social fantasy, Rosenquist brings it into critical question, but in enlarging its fragments he suggests its “poetic” domination. The brilliance of Rosenquist is that he has made concrete poetry out of banal imagery derived from a dumb social fantasy and, in doing so, disclosed its absolute power over our inner and outer lives.

Donald Kuspit