- James Rosenquist: A RetrospectiveBy Sarah Bancroft
- Rosenquist: Painting Below ZeroOur PickBy James Rosenquist and David Dalton
Important Art by James Rosenquist
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.
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.
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.