New York

James Rosenquist

Gagosian Gallery (21)

I HEREBY PLEDGE to stop repeating along with everyone else that Jeff Koons's paintings look like James Rosenquist's. As if to forcibly remind us just how different his art is from that of his ostensible followers, Rosenquist has effected an important shift in his work—not an about-face, but the kind of dramatic change that demonstrates just what's been essential all along. He had always put the techniques and imagery of mass communication in the service of painting, not vice versa; as suggestive as his accumulations of sometimes topical, sometimes nostalgic mass-cultural imagery could be, what gave his best works their charge were really the sparks struck by pictorial juxtapositions that always tended to neutralize their own image content, the better to exploit color, shape, and, finally, sheer sensation. Now those dazzling surface qualities are just about all that's left. In these paintings, as Rosenquist himself says, “Something that may look like a shiny cylinder disintegrates into something that's not a cylinder while you are looking at it.”

And there is depth to match the dazzle. In his catalogue introduction, William Jeffett describes Rosenquist's new works' as “basically abstract paintings that operate according to the logic of figurative painting.” But the only figurative paintings they resemble are Rosenquist's own—and those, with their warped, sometimes gravity-defying space, have always operated according to an essentially abstract logic. These are works of both rare complexity and seamless unity, thanks to Rosenquist's talent not only for constructing pictorial composites but also for manipulating paint; they evince a brilliant spontaneity any Abstract Expressionist would have envied, even though they are carefully worked out in advance in the form of collages.

It has long been my feeling that Rosenquist's megapaintings like _Star Thief, 1980, and F-111, 1964-65 (which the artist cites in the catalogue as favorites), are not only failures but have had a deleterious effect on his work as a whole. In fact my impression on seeing his Denver Art Museum retrospective when it came to the Whitney in 1986 was that F-111 had kicked off a twenty-year run of slack, arbitrary paintings whose local juxtapositions weakened their total impact—a lull from which the artist had only recently roused himself. But since then, with the exception of an early-'90s side venture into photorealism (a series depicting plastic-wrapped doll's heads), Rosenquist has been working at a consistently high level, and he can now take on the mural scale he's always aspired to without bombast or loss of control. And yet I still might prefer the relatively contained proportions of even the twelve-foot-long diptychs Full House—Speed of Light and Voyager—Speed of Light, both 2001, to the vastness of The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light, 2000, the forty-six-foot-long work that dominates this show. But while the latter doesn't really seem to need its gargantuan scale, neither does the painting collapse under its own weight; it manages to be successful on its own terms, and in the right architectural setting would probably look as spectacular as Rosenquist means it to be.

Barry Schwabsky