James Rosenquist’s art eschews purity to reach an eye-popping clarity.
In 1978, James Rosenquist made a painting from three fragmentary images: a close-up of clasped hands, one female and the other male; a portion of an automobile, possibly upside down; and a cropped view of chinaware sitting in a suds-filled sink. Called The Facet, this painting seems suitably named until a question occurs. Why “facet” in the singular? Doesn’t the artist show us three facets or fragments or aspects of his subjects? Throughout his career, which began in New York in the early 1960s, Rosenquist has made paintings from unexpected, sometimes startling juxtapositions of images displaced from their places of origin and, in the process, deprived of their original unity. A monochrome painter might emphasize a single aspect of a color. A Minimalist sculptor might try to focus our attention on the singularly planar aspect of a geometric form. But Rosenquist’s paintings congregate several aspects of several things—or of many things. What, then, does he mean by calling this canvas The Facet?
Perhaps he is being ironic. Or perhaps he offers these three fragments as an isolated facet of some larger whole. We can’t know with certainty about this or any of the other mysteries that fill Rosenquist’s oeuvre. According to the title of a painting from 2001, The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light. Where in this dazzling play of layered, flickering, interwoven form is the stowaway hiding? Imagining for a moment that the stowaway is a surrogate for the artist, we could ask: as he peers out, is he seeing the speed of light itself? Or has his peering somehow attained that incomprehensible speed? Ever since Piet Mondrian and other geometric abstractionists of the 1920s began numbering their canvases, painters have often seen titles as intrusions on the exclusively pictorial nature of their medium. By contrast, Rosenquist’s titles give language a lively role to play in shaping our responses to his imagery.
Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1933. His aptitude for drawing emerged early and, during his high school years, was sufficiently developed to win him a scholarship to the Art Institute in Minneapolis, where his family had settled in 1941. At 19, he enrolled in art classes at the University of Minnesota. Encouraged by one of his teachers, a veteran avant-gardist named Cameron Booth, he applied to the Art Students League, in Manhattan. Awarded a tuition grant, Rosenquist studied at the League for a year, starting in 1955. During summer vacations from college, he had worked with a sign-painting crew in the Midwest. Now he found work painting billboards. By the end of the ’50s, he had become the head painter at the Artkraft-Strauss Sign Corporation. And he had gotten to know Claes Oldenburg, Chuck Hinman, and other young artists in downtown Manhattan.
Paying the rent on various Manhattan lofts with proceeds from his commercial work, Rosenquist struggled, on his own time, with the challenge of inventing an original style of abstract painting in a time dominated by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Then, as the 1960s began, he suddenly merged the parallel but incompatible paths he had been following. Hey! Let’s Go for a Ride (1961) juxtaposes a soft-drink bottle with a smiling face. Transposing advertising images from a billboard to a stretched canvas, Rosenquist crops and layers them with such jolting verve that he loosens their representational moorings. To put it the other way around, as critics of the period often did, these bluntly rendered representations read almost as abstractions. This collision of the figurative and the non-figurative brought Rosenquist into the first rank of the Pop artists, alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. By the mid-’60s he had achieved the status of a major figure in the history of American art. Nonetheless, the “Pop” label never adhered very firmly to Rosenquist, and as the years went by it became clear that his art is too inventive, too expansive, to be confined within any stylistic category.
Appearing in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and in the same moment as the blank geometries of Minimalist art, Pop was a defiantly explicit return to figurative art. Moreover, it held its representational mirror up to a world of commercial imagery that had, for the most part, been excluded from serious art. Like Warhol and other Pop artists, including Tom Wesselmann, Rosenquist made subject matter of corporate logos, advertising layouts, and familiar household items. Yet he did not join these contemporaries on their collective trek to the realm of immediately recognizable imagery. His path to the familiar took him through the “zero,” the “nothing,” that he saw in abstract art.
Consciously disinclined to theorize, Rosenquist proceeds by intuition. To understand his aesthetic, we must join him in the realm illuminated, fitfully, by metaphors and anecdotes like the one he told in 1987 about a visit, years earlier, to an exhibition of paintings by a veteran abstractionist who had studied with Hans Hofmann. A leading practitioner of Abstract Expressionism, Hofmann became toward the end of his career an advocate of “pure painting” uncompromised by any reference to the world beyond the edges of the canvas. Not all his students accepted this dogma of purity but the painter in Rosenquist’s story did, so he was chagrined when Hofmann stopped by his show and, pointing at a painting, asked, “What’s that there? It looks like Popeye to me.” Continuing the story in his own words, Rosenquist said, “And there was Popeye. He had a pumpkin head, a stick body, big feet, hands, and it was supposed to be totally non-objective painting. Only colors.” Seeking the “zero” of non-objectivity with pure color, the painter had been unable to keep a cartoon character from making a ghostly appearance in the pictorial space “below zero.” And it was this space, Rosenquist realized, that he wanted his images to occupy.
What Rosenquist means by “painting below zero” is clarified by his recollections of painting billboards. Up on a scaffold, at arm’s length from an image at the scale of architecture, he knew he was painting figuratively—“These huge cheeks,” for example, which were “twenty-five feet across.” But all he could see was an expanse of paint that “looked like the Sahara”—in other words, empty. High above the city’s streets, he had arrived at the place “below zero” where the distinction between abstract and representational imagery blurs or disappears. In a statement from 1966 Rosenquist favors abstraction, saying, “most of my pictures are about nonobjective art, although that does not mean they look non-objective. I use objects for the benefit of the viewer, to relate space and color.” There are faces, automobiles, and allover expanses of spaghetti in his paintings only because viewers need to anchor themselves in the familiar as they sail, speculatively, into vast spaces defined by color relationships. To block the notion that an aspiration to purely pictorial color lurks in his art, Rosenquist has stated, “I am not interested in purity.” He is interested, rather, in “clarity.”
Clarity, one might ask, about what? For the artist’s comments about the non-objectivity of his art are difficult to reconcile with his comments on F-111 (1964–65). Named for a fighter jet, this multi-paneled painting, 86 feet wide and 10 feet high, is a panorama of jarring motifs, military and civilian: a hair dryer, the spaghetti mentioned earlier, a mushroom cloud, an automobile tire, the fuselage of the jet plane, and more. Several interviews from that time make it clear that Rosenquist assembled this seething jumble of images as an argument that war production, ramped up for the Vietnam war, had joined with a flourishing domestic marketplace to set loose a real-life jumble of destructive forces. This social-political statement had a powerful impact not only in America but in Europe, where F-111 was widely shown. Nonetheless, its imagery still has the power to take us “below zero,” to a virtual place where both figurative and non-figurative readings are not only possible but compatible. Far from an exercise in pictorial purity, F-111 has a message—one that its formal power intensifies. As for the painting’s clarity, it could perhaps be said Rosenquist found a way to be clear about the roiling ambiguities that turn F-111 and other paintings from this period into unbounded fields of meaning, much of it disquieting.
Throughout the 1960s, Rosenquist elaborated his complex clarities with imagery that recalls the “Sahara” he traversed as a billboard painter. Colors are bright and usually matte. The motifs that migrate to his art from the television screen and the pages of mass-circulation magazines have forms and textures reminiscent of mid-20th-century photography. As the play of figurative–non-figurative continues into the following decade, the look of Rosenquist’s paintings changes slightly. Highlights become sharper and outlines display a new crispness. A smooth gleam replaces the matte textures of his earlier work, as if he were deploying the latest, most sophisticated technology. Elegantly placed passages of blankness appear and, as the 1970s begin, open onto immeasurably deep spaces.
In the ’80s, these spaces often fill with scatterings of stars and other astronomical phenomena, even as quotidian things—strips of bacon, nuts and bolts, tubes of lipstick—proliferate. And Rosenquist invented an extraordinary new way to layer his paintings. Early in the 1970s, he had begun to divide his time between studios in New York city and Florida, where, as Sarah Celeste Bancroft has noted, the artist was inspired by the saw-tooth fronds of palmetto trees to give zigzag edges to certain motifs—women’s faces and tropical flowers, primarily. The serrations are so deep that, when one of these images is placed over another the effect is of crosshatching or even weaving. Thus the interlacing of the abstract and the representational takes on a new complexity, and does so again as the millennium approaches. Photographing objects in a cylinder of reflective metal and transferring the results to canvas, Rosenquist produced the gleaming intricacies of Voyager-Speed of Light (2001) and Time Stops the Face Continues (2008). In these paintings, abstraction predominates until one learns to see—or at least glimpse—identifiable objects in the sinuous flow of high-keyed color.
The outrage that prompted Rosenquist to paint F-111 has persisted. With its emblems of American fecklessness and Middle Eastern spirituality, The Xenophobic Movie Director or Our Foreign Policy (2004) registers his horror at this country’s excursion into Iraq. Yet political commentary has evolved in recent seasons into the visionary tides that surge through such paintings as Multiverse You Are, I Am (2007). Speaking for himself and all the rest of us, the artist once said, “Trying to figure out where you float, that’s always the question.” Immersion in Rosenquist’s sprawling fields is like immersion in the world’s—indeed, the universe’s—flow of energy, and it is always a surprise when you figure out, if only for an instant, where the swift currents of his imagery have taken you.
By Carter Ratcliff
Images Copyright 2017 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photographs courtesy of the artist.