James Rosenquist was an American Artist who was heavily involved with the Pop Art movement, being a co founder of the movement. As he had experience in sign painting, his work often explored advertising and consumer culture in art and society. To do this, he used his experiences and techniques used within sign painting to create work involving popular cultural icons and mundane objects. Although his works have been compared to artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein, he is considered unique for the ways that he incorporated surrealism by including actual fragments of advertisements and imagery to show how ads can often be overwhelming.
“Art historian and curator Sarah Bancroft had the great privilege to work at the Guggenheim where she co-curated James Rosenquist’s retrospective. Beginning in 2015 Jim asked Sarah to come and work for his foundation and his studio, making her the vice president/the director of James Rosenquist studio and the executive director of the James Rosenquist foundation. James Rosenquist is one of the founders if you can call it that of the American pop art movement he along with his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol who really grouped together by art historians and curators. At the time they weren’t working together as a group, but the young artists were painting figuratively, coming out of a moment where abstract expressionism was at the apex of the art world. These young upstarts painting in this fashion was quite shocking and so there were no characters like Henrik El dollar at the Met and wonderful gallerists around town who started to show them together and it was really quite a shock this artwork at that time, so he was one of the artists at the forefront of this group and in the early 60s became known as an American pop artist and he’s really pushed himself over the decades to create new and new forms he’s never repeating what he did before. James Rosenquist was born in North Dakota and grew up in Minnesota spent most of his young life in the Midwest the middle of the country and he moved to New York to study at the art students League while also working as a commercial artist to support himself. Before he became known as an American pop artist, he was really standing on the boards as billboard artists called it painting commercial advertisements and his focus was on massive advertisements. In his private time, he had a little studio where he did tiny abstract drawings.
In 1960, a friend of his and a colleague fell off the boards and died which made Rosenquist realise that he didn’t want to be painting commercial anymore. This led to him moving into a studio in lower Manhattan to focus on his fine art career. Very quickly thereafter his career had momentum and he became known as one of the American pop artists. When Rosenquist moved into the space his work changed dramatically; rather than making small abstract drawings he started incorporating elements of the commercial advertisements into his own work, so he would take snippets of images make collage from them to make these unexpected changes to positions and then use the collage to paint the canvas and these became the very first pop paintings of his.
In the marine Gallery there’s a beautiful collection of Jim’s source collages almost every painting has a source collage which is a working document for him, he created these collages sniping imagery from advertisements, women’s magazines, lifetime or from photographs he had commissioned or taken himself, alternately even from photocopies. These developed his billboard painting experience as whatever it was that he needed to paint on the Billboard he was given a small image and he would use that image to scale up on a massive billboard and so when he started painting his own works he decided that he would continue in that tradition. However, rather than using imagery that had been given to him, he chose the imagery himself in unexpected ways to create a composition of his own making and then painted the canvas from these collages. These are known as working documents which he did not show to people for many decades, he was very secretive about them as he didn’t want people to understand the process of how he composed the work. This meant that they didn’t enter the realm of the public until the 90s. For the Guggenheim retrospective, he very generously allowed us, or he was convinced to show a much larger body of work because they are relevant to his process, to the conceptual backbone of each painting and quite frankly they are works of art. This space is a perfect marriage between architecture and painting, there is enough space for these paintings to breathe, many of these works are enormous, monumental in scale and yet they feel calm/peaceful. It’s almost cathedral like, it’s an incredible show, this Gallery is really a destination and I can’t imagine a better place for these works to be shown.”
Rosenquist talking about his 88-foot-wide painting of an F 111 fighter plane in 1965:
This was a combination of number of ideas, and one was visiting an amusement park in Texas, seeing a beast 36 aeroplane just sitting there rusting and then going to an amusement park that had a lot of unnatural things about it as a theme park. Then wondering and then talking to Barnett Newman about seeing something which is relegated by peripheral vision, what you see through the side of your eyes makes what you think you see that colour for instance or colour can change other colours according to the whole show rounding up senses of colour light dark everything. I wanted to make a room that wherever you looked you would that colour would be that colour because everything else made it that colour. I learned that income taxes were started by the Chinese to the donation to make a humanist or was a humanist donation to make it a community or society just at that time I met Paul bird from the St. Louis post dispatch, we had just come back from some combat missions in Vietnam so the culmination of all these things created the painting. I thought of the economy that this war weapon supported in Texas and then Long Island so that was the beginning ideas to get me off the chair to do this is painting. Later, it was taken as a great anti-war picture and how illogical it was to be an artist in this century at this time, how what a joke it was to be an artist I mean of 1 think that they have any power political power by being an artist or saying something or doing anything it didn’t doesn’t seem to be the artists role in society to be silly at that time.
Rosenquist talking about whether Pop Art was revolutionary:
I don’t think it’s revolutionary. Revolutionary painting shows in history a few times, like in the high and low show there was a beautiful Miro painting and the inspiration from that came from him clipping with the scissors, clipping off little pictures of a knife, fork and spoon out of catalogue. He used the positive – negative space as a sketch and then this became a big, beautiful painting which was very atmospheric and very unusual as the knife, fork and spoons were transformed into funny shapes, but they were still from the drawing. People have always been searching for an idea or a reason for to get them off the chair to do something so during the time of abstract expressionism a lot of students were merely taught to be careless with abandon, hit the canvas with a rag with a broom with a rush after you make a mark on a canvas does that mark suggest an inspiration? Then you have to have the responsibility to finish something and do something about that mark that you made because you destroyed the beautiful painting surface, Lots of people were being taught that the brush stroke and the viscosity of paint became a cliché so people were becoming tired of that and abstract painting being misinterpreted into something else, for instance something that could be very serial looking gradually could have a figure of Popeyes sitting in there right in the middle of it. You see the strangest artworks coming out of people, so called pop artist commercial artists Roy Lichtenstein and I was a billboard painter, and many other commercial artists were.
Rosenquist discussing why Pop Art happened when it did:
I can’t put my finger on that one, one could say that abstract painting up until 1945/1950 really had its roots in Europe from French non-objective painting but then one could say well this looks more American and with that which has less roots in your in Europe. I don’t want to say that because I don’t see enough reasons for that as it would be a self-conscious attitude, like saying hey I’m going to do this now because I don’t hate Europeans, I’m not going to be like that I’m in America I can’t, I don’t see that well. Lawrence Alloway coined that term pop art, we were called new realists and lot of other things, I think Pop Art was a misnomer as Lawrence Alloway seemed to think that everyone was infatuated with popular imagery which I don’t think was the case. Strange thing is that since 1960, the pop art has still remained popular or people remain interested in it, also the artists involved have been very lucky to have a rather long life with exception of Andy Warhol but I’ve been pretty lucky to have a rather long career.
Rosenquist discussing what he wants people to see when they look at his paintings:
Well, I mean I like them to realise how much can come out of a little paint pot, just open a little pot of paint and it flies all over the place. That’s a thing that students don’t know, and I’ve tried very few times but I’ve been to a school for boys and girls there the trying to make an expression from a little tube of paint and they don’t know how to mix paint or do anything practical so they get very frustrated so they take a cigarette and put it in the mess, and they will home and everything is dirty in a mess everything. So, I showed them how to take the paint out of the tube and smear it up and how much space they could cover with just a little bit of paint in that tube. I showed them how to do that and after a while they could make these big beautiful abstract paintings. I said fantastic, now you must have an idea that’s the next part but it’s the same with film to be able to use it be able to do it to be able to light things to be able to do all that takes someone to show you the knack of how to do that, it’s craft.
James Rosenquist discussing where his ideas come from:
My inspirations when I was first starting was that I thought I could devise a new space from painting outdoor billboards in Times Square and that was as a kid I was subject to Rinso White commercials and early television commercials. Our commercial society which is quite unlike Russia for instance, and I thought my job was to paint big pictures of movie stars and then to paint objects to sell and if I could paint them well the company would sell them but if I didn’t I’d get fired. I had to paint a beautiful beer, beautiful shirts, beautiful everything so salesmen would be attracted. They said the beer had too many hops in it, tell that kid change it, got to change it so that only meant making a slightly different colour yellow and repainting the whole damn thing slightly. So, I take it home with me and I take Franco American spaghetti orange I take that home which was like red dye number 2 and yellow I take that, and I make abstract paintings out of these. Then I thought hey I’ll use magnified imagery that spilled out of the picture plane and I’d set it up so the closest thing you would see would be recognised last because would be too personal and what irritates people. So that’s how my so-called pop art painting started, and I really use generic things unlike say Andy Warhol who used Campbell’s soup. I painted spaghetti, I painted soup, I painted hot dogs, jeans, cars, generic things instead of out there things. The labels and the title might occur to me and this title with the stick out my mind and then I’ll think in terms of everything I think of I’ll think in terms of that title. For instance, I did a painting called 4 nuclear women which is meant if women become powerful and they are like women who own a lot of stock in the stock market or better be like Golden mate or become president like Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, or Indira Gandhi, will they be new clear women or nuclear women, will they blow us up or are they smart something like that. So, then I met Zack Darlington’s actress Liv Ullmann, she saw that painting she says oh what are you going to do next and I said I’m going to do the persistence of electrical nymphs in space and she said oh what’s that about I said well that’s the sound of all the souls after the earth blows options.
Okay so those are titles that I would think about before I would start working. Then I like to think about how young people want to live in the future too which is interesting as people are like animals and still have all the best visuals. I mean still have all the best vestiges of anatomy and they have claws, fangs, ears, noses just like animals you see running around here and then I go to New York, I see beautiful girls that have claws, fangs, noses everything and I see they are very sophisticated and they smell nice but there are still animals so I wonder how will a young person like to live in a really high tech environment such as a rocket ship or an apartment or a business place like that but would they prefer to live a pastoral life like little lambs in a Meadow so I think that’s curious what the future generations will select as an environment. If the environment is going to hell those oil slicks all over and Hussein burned the oil fields down and all of that and one wonders what you know when will people get busy cleaning it up or are they interested or whatever it’s curious, I’m interested in what people will select so I started making paintings that look like people reincarnating into Flowers are starting to be intermixed with flora and fauna and machines too, they were sort of pieces of flesh start starting to be connected to machines or Flowers or an I did those in a shot images cut in shards so that with the least amount of suggestion you could see what an image of something yet there was a whole ground to put another image in to paint there was a lot of area left over and then that would be a specific image and then the mixture of both of those I was hoping for a third image it would be if all artists have crosshatched including Michelangelo Rembrandt and everybody like scribbling and in those scribbles screw doing that one day and then that I thought haven this crosshatching I could like this for instance put two images overlapping so you could see both images at the same time and still have more area to paint it and you could even describe with pieces of imagery which no one has done before yet so I mean use using imagery as a sketch to describe another image that would be really confusing so or illuminating so that that’s why it was one inspiration.
A lot of James Rosenquist’s work is very abstract Pop Art work including a range of different objects and materials, with collage being a big part of his work. Rosenquist arranges each piece of cut out prints differently to create a range of interesting compositions that work with the bright colours used to draw the attention of the viewer. For instance, in ‘Miles’ (shown above) the shards of the plate are spread around the circle in the middle to draw the eye to that part of the piece which is quite interesting as the background of the piece is very detailed, so you don’t expect the centre of the piece to be the main point. Sometimes Rosenquist didn’t have to use actual images of things, but instead used shapes and colours to translate into something he wanted the viewer to see without having to make it too obvious. In ‘The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet, from Welcome to the Water Planet Series’, Rosenquist builds up the ‘bird’ using flowing lines and cut out prints and I find this fascinating as people don’t have to see an actual object or figure to understand the work. Even in circumstances when actual objects are used, they are made abstract to go along with the rest of the elements in Rosenquist’s work.
There are many abstract forms and lines used throughout his work which he is well known for. Although these sometimes seem quite spontaneous, they are actually considered for a while by Rosenquist as he puts a lot of attention into getting the right compositions and angles of the different cut out pieces in his collages.
In some of his work, Rosenquist focuses on key objects and figures throughout history, such as the F-111 plane mentioned earlier on in this post. This is because he was trying to demonstrate what life was like back then and how this could have impacted on people’s lives. Yet he also focused on subjects heavily involving what could happen in the future and how young people would react to different situations which I find very interesting as a lot of people are quite unpredictable.
A crucial part of Rosenquist’s work was parody yet he did this in a way that still allowed him to demonstrate his own individual perception and purpose. His parody was mainly focused on advertising and he wanted to demonstrate the powers that advertising had in an innovative way.
The key influence I have from James Rosenquist is his bold uses of colour that demonstrate a flow in his work. I find his combinations of colours very interesting and feel his abstract approach could add to my work. I am hoping to do one of my paintings using a colour palette inspired by one or several of his paintings to allow myself to fully explore whether this would be right for my project.