- James Rosenquist: A RetrospectiveBy Sarah Bancroft
- Rosenquist: Painting Below ZeroOur PickBy James Rosenquist and David Dalton
Progression of Art
Like many Pop artists, Rosenquist was fascinated by the popularization of political and cultural figures in mass media. In his billboard-style painting President Elect, the artist fuses Madison Avenue caliber advertising with political ambition by depicting John F. Kennedy's smiling face alongside consumer items - namely, a yellow Chevrolet and a slice of cake from an ad. Rosenquist created the collage using images cut from their original context that he adapted to fit a monumental scale in a photo-realistic style. As Rosenquist explains, "The face was from Kennedy's campaign poster. I was very interested at that time in people who advertised themselves. Why did they put up an advertisement of themselves? So that was his face. And his promise was half a Chevrolet and a piece of stale cake."
Considered the artist's breakthrough work, President Elect speaks to Rosenquist's fascination with subliminal persuasion through advertising. Rosenquist had a strong interest in the imagery of advertising, and wanted to translate its power into his artwork: "Painting is probably much more exciting than advertising," he said, "so why shouldn't it be done with that power and gusto, with that impact." This large-scale work exemplifies Rosenquist's technique of combining discrete images through techniques of blending, interlocking, and juxtaposition, as well as his skill at including political and social commentary using popular imagery. By placing Kennedy, the first presidential candidate to harness mass media to benefit his campaign, in the same frame as a sleek, powerful 1949 Chevy and dainty fingers caressing cake, the artist suggests the three subjects are similarly neatly packaged, marketed as desirable, and sold to the American people. At the same time, here Kennedy becomes a symbol of post-war American abundance.
Oil on masonite - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
The most ambitious of Rosenquist's collage paintings, F-111 stretches 86 feet long across 23 canvas panels and aluminum sections, encompassing a viewer's entire field of vision. The painting depicts a full-scale, 73 foot long F-111 fighter plane interrupted by assorted images derived from billboards and advertisements of the day rendered large and in clashing, day-glo colors. Among the fragmentary advertisements are a tire, a cake, air bubbles, spaghetti, a light bulb, and a young girl using a hair dryer that resembles a missile head. Disturbingly, there is also a beach umbrella juxtaposed onto an atomic explosion, making reference to a particular military euphemism used at the time: "nuclear umbrella."
Created during the Vietnam War, F-111 mixes fragments of consumer advertising (of the sort and scale that Rosenquist had become familiar with in his earlier career as a billboard painter) with military imagery, evoking what President Dwight Eisenhower warned of in his departing 1961 address as "the military-industrial complex." Indeed, the F-111 bomber represented the latest technological innovation in warfare and cost millions to develop. In an interview, Rosenquist imagined a man who "has a contract from the company making the bomber, and he plans his third automobile and his fifth child because he is a technician and has work for the next couple of years....the prime force of this thing has been to keep people working, an economic tool; but behind it, this is a war machine." By offering a vision of this jet, as Rosenquist described it, "flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising," F-111 suggests complicity between this "war machine" and consumer culture.
F-111 was originally designed to cover all four walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery's main room in Manhattan. Its size permits no vacant wall space to offer visual relief from the bombardment of fragmentary images. As such, it exemplifies Rosenquist's contribution to Pop art: grand scale collage paintings that encompass an amalgamation of consumer imagery in a manner suggestive of socio-political commentary. After its purchase in 1967, F-111 toured major institutions in Europe and was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1978, significantly bolstering Rosenquist's artistic reputation abroad.
Oil on canvas with aluminum, twenty-three sections - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Marilyn Monroe, I
James Rosenquist painted this inverted and fragmented portrait of Marilyn Monroe just following her unexpected death in 1962. Like fellow Pop artist Andy Warhol, Rosenquist transformed Marilyn's iconic image. But whereas Warhol used well-known photographs of the celebrity sex symbol repetitiously, Rosenquist chose to present her in a manner that denied immediate recognition, while preserving her coquettishness. He achieved this by breaking apart her eyes, lips, and hand, reassembling the pieces into a seemingly random configuration, and boldly overlaying letters that are themselves fragments of her name.
Below the lettering appears a fragment of the word "Coca-Cola" in the soda's trademark script. Through this association with branding, mass-production, and popular culture, the artist draws attention not so much to Monroe as a person as to how she was packaged in the mass media and marketed based on her sex appeal, here synecdochically referred to through images of her smiling mouth and attractive blue eyes artistically repackaged. Rosenquist's painting of Marilyn Monroe is one of countless others painted by his contemporaries, including Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, that attest to the increasing power of mass media and its impact on art production during the 1960s.
Oil and spray enamel on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
House of Fire
In this painting, Rosenquist utilizes tropes from the visual rhetoric of advertising to create a triptych that features a bag of groceries, a glowing bucket, and cosmetics. Highly dynamic, the painting appears to depict a moment frozen in time, just before the grocery items fall out of the upside-down bag. The image is also a sensuous one, with the lipsticks exhibiting a high-gloss shine that resembles contemporary adverts for cars. And yet, these everyday objects simultaneously warn of impending danger.
Here aggression infiltrates the domestic sphere. The upside-down groceries threaten to drop like bombs, and the projecting lipsticks resemble a battery of missiles. Similarly, the red bucket interwoven with the window at center appears to be glowing as though filled with the same molten steel used to cast weapons. These threatening objects, painted over a red hot backdrop and ominously titled House of Fire warns against being taken in by advertising and, worse still, the danger posed to society when horrifying news bulletins are interspersed among seemingly innocent commercials. Although smaller than the majority of Rosenquist's large paintings, at only 16.5 feet wide, this painting shares themes of sexuality, violence, and consumerist impulses that are typical of the artist's work. But unlike his earlier collage paintings from the 1960s, this composition is more orderly in its juxtaposition of fragmented images, exemplifying the clearer iconography and more coherent narrative to be found in Rosenquist's mid-career work. The artist created a series of 54 prints after this image in 1989.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Serenade for the Doll after Claude Debussy, Gift Wrapped Doll #16
This painting, one of 12 in this series exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1993, presents a partial frontal view of a doll wrapped in cellophane. Painted on a large scale (60 x 60 inches), the doll speaks to the innocence of childhood, while its wide-eyed expression suggests surprise or fright, as if being suffocated by the cellophane that distorts its features. The effect is disconcerting for the viewer and reminiscent of the deep human understanding that dolls can be both comforting and frightening. The work follows in a tradition of art made with dolls, and particularly references the Surrealist fascination with dolls and toys evident in the work of artists such as Hans Bellmer.
The title refers to a work by French composer Claude Debussy, whose musical composition Serenade of the Doll was written for his daughter. Indeed, Rosenquist's painting was inspired in large part by his own experience as a father raising his then young daughter Lily. However, Rosenquist's work is not so much an examination of childhood as a statement about the world that his daughter will inhabit. Of particular concern to Rosenquist when creating this series, was the AIDS crisis and how it would affect innocence, love, and relationships in his daughter's generation. The artist claimed that the doll paintings were "a result of my feelings about the child who has to look forward to the difficulty of relationships because of AIDS. The coolness, thoughtfulness that will be in a young romance make it seem the complete antithesis of passion." Just so, Rosenquist depicts the doll contained and controlled within its wrap. An allusion to parental anxiety, the cellophane wrap both protects and inhibits, restricts, and even smothers the doll. Earlier works by Rosenquist, also convey his concern for the wellbeing of future generations. Consider, for example, the young girl beneath a missile-shaped hair dryer in F-111. But the artist, now a father, communicates that paternal worry more overtly in Gift Wrapped Doll.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (Painting I)
Brightly colored forms, astronomical imagery, and distinctive logos from advertisements and commercial package designs become distorted as they swirl around vortices in The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (Painting I). One of a series of three enormous collage paintings and one of the larger compositions at 11 x 90 feet, this work, according to Rosenquist, is a "diary of the terrible temper of the times," of the technological, economic, and political changes that have shaped the past century. It is also full of references to works from Rosenquist's earlier career. In addition to employing tropes such as swirling vortices and interwoven fragmented imagery, the artist also included the missile-shaped hair dryer from F-111, though the blonde girl beneath it is absent. Rosenquist explained, "the little girl who was the pilot of the F-111 is now the heiress who controls Wall Street." Also prominent is a portion of Pablo Picasso's famous anti-war painting, Guernica, which he created in response to the Nazi bombing of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Instantly recognizable, a broken version of the painting appears to be caught up in the whirling "econo-mist" - a term that refers to the extensive and ever-changing cultural and economic systems in contemporary society.
The series was originally commissioned in 1992 for the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in East Berlin. The reunification of Germany was underway and this marked an earlier effort to bring art into the culturally deprived (former) East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The large scale, rectangular painting wrapped around walls of a gallery on Unter den Linden. Rosenquist used the series in part to contemplate his place as an artist and individual at the end of the 20th century, a time of both tragic violence and vibrant abundance. The reappearance in this painting of images from his earlier work attests to that. Vortices of swirling chaos hurtle those fragments of consumer products, weaponry, cultural imagery, and abstract forms toward the far end of the composition, where the German flag emerges as a sun rising. Here, Rosenquist reminds the viewer of Germany's tragic past, but also suggests its promising future.
Oil on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Stowaway Peers Out of the Speed of Light
During the late 1990s, Rosenquist began incorporating abstraction into his billboard-size collage paintings. Stowaway Peers Out of the Speed of Light features brightly colored, distorted, and compressed forms whirling through space amidst layers of sleek, reflective vortices. The seemingly chaotic composition is part of the Speed of Light series, which explores vision in motion. Inspired by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and the speed of light, Stowaway addresses how people see and understand the same image differently. Rosenquist explained: "In Einstein's study of the speed of light, apparently the speeding person looks out of the window [sic], and the view is altered because of the tremendous speed. And then the spectator, watching the speeding person - the look of that is also altered. Things are crammed together, and they're foreshortened. It's a pun, really. Like the difference between the artist and the critic, how different people see different things."
Although the Rosenquist's process of creation remains the same, this painting attests to the artist's rediscovered admiration for the gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. This transition from focusing exclusively on the mass media and consumer imagery of his earlier career to addressing intersections between science and aesthetics lends Rosenquist's later work new relevance. He continues to hearken back to his career as a billboard painter, but with different results. "Underneath it all is all my experience," the artist says of the series. "The paintings are about my imagination as to a new view, or a new look at the speed of light. And they also have to do with the whole history of my experience put into a painting."
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Artist