The artist has been such a fixture in the contemporary art world it is difficult now to imagine how startling the work seemed when it first emerged. His reputation is intimately bound to the advent of Pop Art around 1961 and a decisive swing in painting, away from the abstract and overtly expressive to a figurative turn stressing a cool and amused attitude, taking its means and subject matter from commercial illustration and comic strips. Together with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist is taken as a core exemplar of the movement. Yet from the beginning, Rosenquist stood slightly apart. Where Warhol and Lichtenstein embraced common graphics for a vivid contrast with the resources of painting, indeed converge upon the same subjects, Rosenquist’s sources are less direct, less bracing. He too looked to commercial illustration, but it was illustration filtered through the massive enlargements used in billboard pictorials, with their desaturated colours and tones and drastic simplifications (in an era when billboards were still hand-painted). And it must be noted from the outset there are special difficulties in citing reproductions of the artist’s work, since a photograph rarely indicates the imposing scale to his work, even in the sixties, the distinctive, workman-like facture, subdued tone and colour. There are aspects to large works that simply cannot be observed in reproduction. That said, his work carried a similar impassive, deadpan quality to a Warhol or Lichtenstein, the smooth modelling to gross enlargements similarly announced the acceptance of bland conventions, an indifference or detachment from any more personal input. In works such as The Light That Won’t Fail 1 (1961), we have effectively close-ups of figures and objects but pointedly without greater detail, in fact relishing their absence. Much of the initial shock to Pop Art rests with this seeming rejection of the personal and expressive to painting, with its indifference to more searching engagement with figuration.
And unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein, Rosenquist was not satisfied with changes effected through mere transposition of source imagery to fine art painting. Quite apart from his advertising sources, he adopts a prominent cropping or collage to sources, distinct from the kind of layout arrangements that arise in billboard illustration. Why the artist is attracted to this is puzzling. Interviews confirm his passion for the technique and it remains throughout his long career but strictly, his billboard sources, merely through enlargement and composition or framing, ought to have been sufficient. Yet Rosenquist rarely allows this. Works such as Untitled (JoanCrawford Says) (1964) and Contest (1964) attest the artist is aware of the option, but they remain exceptions. Part of the reason is surely the artist’s conviction that figuration can now be used in a more abstract way, as ‘painting below zero’, to use the title of his excellent 2009 biography. “Everyone was searching to get down to absolute zero, to just colour and form in their abstract pictures. I thought I wanted to get below zero and the only way I knew to do that was to start using imagery again.” (Judith Goldman, Rosenquist, Denver/New York, 1985 pp.26-27).
Warhol and Lichtenstein share none of this ambition. Warhol at best paces developments in Minimalist abstraction, later Lichtenstein fondly parodies Art Deco ornament but these are no more than incidental asides. Throughout the fifties Rosenquist’s private, artistic painting had pursued Abstract Expressionism in something of “a cross between Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin” (Op cit) such as Untitled (1956). The abrupt shift in his work is seen as furthering the goals of painting on these terms. Yet just how abstraction is to be conceived through standard illustration is by no means clear. Initially, it seems compositions – in effect, collages – use scattered imagery in much the same way as a de Kooning, for instance, uses gestures – so that disparate images may be read purely for linear, tonal or colour qualities, or in various, spontaneous combination. A work like In The Red (1962) for example, carefully matches the curve of a upright platter in the centre against the abutting image of a couch with an ostensibly nude woman crouching upon it, while on the left the image of a man’s socks is similarly cropped to the platter, echoing the framing. But evidently the artist was uncomfortable with simply a levelling or delay to the identification of fragments and soon the arrangements are seen as facilitating elaborate metaphors for a state of mind or society, for the flow to meaning in even the most banal illustrations. Abstraction then, for Rosenquist becomes a prelude to elaborate allegory and these grow in scope and scale throughout his career.
Unlike earlier Cubist or Dada collage, Rosenquist is not interested in a fragmented picture plane or merely unusual or provocative subject matter. Instead interest lies with multiple pictures, an incomplete or indeterminate picture plane that often resorts to sculptural attachments and ingenuities of installation or location, as daring extension. It is a thoroughly expansive project. Unlike preceding practice, the paintings are to be immersive yet fragmentary experiences. Yet the works are firstly paintings. Collage edges or framings taken at one remove, (within painting) then carry a somewhat arch attitude to such intervention, seem cursory as drawing, detached as technique and further a passive/aggressive indifference. While Rosenquist differed in formal respects from Warhol and Lichtenstein, he nevertheless shared an iconography as well as a striking - for many, a deeply troubling - attitude to not just painting but culture generally. Their painting is starker than contemporaries like Tom Wesselmann or Jim Dine for being a more comprehensive rejection of preceding orthodoxy.
All this of course seems some distance from notions of Pop Art as the espousal of the popular, successful or glamorous. But the name followed some distance behind the movement and as so often, irrespective of relevance or aptness. Previously it had been dismissed under a number of labels, such as ‘Neo-Dada,’ stressing a perceived anti-art or nihilistic streak. In West Germany, exponents such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke wittily rebranded it as Capitalist Realism. As a movement it took on greater focus in relation to subsequent developments, which is to say, gradually. In hindsight one now sees that the core of movement was concerned with not the fundamentals of depiction, but its currency and practice at their most widespread, common or popular. In as much as the movement succeeds in this, it gravely undermines the rival project for an absolute abstraction, or the distillation of depiction and painting’s essence. One accepts rules the other looks for laws. It is a familiar controversy. At a more concrete level, the movement was concerned with sampling print imagery through painting, not only for overlooked or unexpected aspects to meaning, but also for the ways these inflect moods and attitudes to painting technique. Unquestionably the movement prospered enormously, extended worldwide. Inspiration spread not only across a variety of graphic forms and publications, including text-only works, but inevitably to photography, which was soon recognised as its own movement – Photorealism.
Such consolidation to some extent compensates for the lack of an accompanying critical or theoretical framework of any rigour, to some extent succeeds because of it. In any case it established a momentum that continued for most of the seventies, steadily dispersing into Pattern and Decoration (P&D) Bad Painting and New Image Painting before confronting an equally adamant rejection in Neo-Expressionism. Finally the cool and collected approach seemed exhausted, but not, significantly, figuration. The Neo-Expressionist wings in Germany (Die Wilden) and Italy (Transavanguardia) are not strictly a revival so much as the assertion of less accepted or circulated community practices, less literal and commercial subject matter. The difficulty is that appeals to a primitive or intuitive approach, like abstraction, argue with conventions and soon look as mannered and superficial as commercial illustration once accepted. The outsider approach has an in-built obsolescence, in other words. Neo-Expressionism consequently enjoys a relatively brief run as an art world fashion before ushering in a more thoroughgoing eclecticism. Pastiche and parody then range across pre-Modernist styles (particularly 16th to 18th century styles) and exchange terse allegory for more arcane and literary allusion in one direction, for something like the discernment of new genres within photographic practices in the other. This development is named – equally unhelpfully – Post Modernism and carries us comfortably to the next century. This briefly indicates the impact of Pop Art on subsequent painting. Hopefully it may also serve as a framework in which to trace Rosenquist’s subsequent development.
Initially the artist confined himself to slightly dated but not quite nostalgic imagery, a realm of deliberately non-descript objects for the most part culled from old copies of Life magazine. However, as their collaged combinations grow more varied in painting, from shifts in hue, such as Broome Street Trucks – After Herman Melville (1963) to superimpositions, such as Cage (1964) and Nomad (1963) to smooth transitions between objects, such as CapillaryAction (1962) the range of imagery broadens to include more contemporary objects, a greater range of sources. By 1964 a work such as Lanai includes a pin-up nude as well as current car body styling (at a glance, a 1963 Buick Electra with reduced tail fins) together with paint-roller wallpaper patterns, offering a kind of veil of cheap domesticity. The effect is an altogether brighter, franker equation between feminine allure and automobile prestige or power. Any number of early works deal in this sexual dynamic, with prepared food (here, a bowl of apricots) supplying a bodily consumption (possibly consummation) in counterpoint to the car’s sleek exterior, to the hovering attendance of a nubile young woman. The picture now gives its assorted fragments a kind of swagger, at 157.5 X 472.4 cm the scale to modelling seems less bland than brash, providing one has the opportunity to step back and contemplate the work at a distance. The colour seems less faded than a calculated economy, a ruthless formal constraint across a gleaming array. And this growing attention to spectacle, to the visual fireworks available to his multiple linking techniques, really marks the peak to his Pop period, sets in train a direction that will carry him to very different themes and times.
Rosenquist’s career is understandably dominated by the vast F-111 (1964-5). At 304.8 X 2,621.3 cm it was by far his largest work up to that point, assembled from fifty-one panels and conceived to entirely occupy all four walls of the modestly scaled Leo Castelli Gallery (then at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street) where it was first exhibited in April 1965. Subsequently it was shown in other configurations in Stockholm, Rome, The Jewish Museum (NYC) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In following years it was exhibited at the Whitney Museum (1972) and the Venice Biennale (1978). The constituent panels not only enabled the work to be more easily transported and assembled but initially were intended to be sold as individual works, a far more radical application of the artist’s project and entirely consistent with his collage approach. But as the work was being dismantled after the Castelli show, the controversial collector Robert Scull, looking to negotiate a bulk deal on the price of the panels, purchased the whole of it. The price for the vast panorama: $45,000. Arguably, this decisively changed the direction of Rosenquist’s work.
In keeping with the growing vibrancy to his palette, F-111 introduces fluorescent paints (these have actually held up surprisingly well, contrary to industry disclaimers). Fluorescent colours were used for the spaghetti in the right-hand panels, giving it an unsettling toxic glow, for parts of the aircraft fuselage on the left. The work notably disperses colour across its diverse subjects more thoroughly than previous works. This is largely assisted by the use of the massive fuselage of the notoriously expensive ‘swing-wing’ bomber as an armature for smaller images. The work thus marshals its variations in colour for objects more effectively because it can rely on greater spatial continuity. This too is something of a breakthrough, since preceding work struggled either to eliminate backgrounds or foregrounds from selected subject matter and instead tended to pile them on top or beside, crowding the picture plane in order to establish ingenious links, as in Painting for the American Negro (1962-3). Apart from greater compositional fluency, F-111 is of course notable for its looming military theme that inflects diverse consumer imagery with intimations of menace and insidious complicity in an industrial-military complex. It is not only a climax for the artist’s Pop sensibility but signals a much more pointed and topical content.
F-111 proved pivotal for the artist and for the movement flagged a closing, extravagant phase. The phase is also registered in Lichtenstein’s graphic parodies of Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso, and nearer to home, the enormous slashing brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, while Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg are quick to use photo-silk screens of the Mona Lisa and Rubens (Venus at her Toilet) respectively, from around the same time. All comically reprise celebrated works as a demonstration of their own style and acceptance. Curiously, Rosenquist was not tempted to join the fun, although keenly attuned to developments among contemporaries. All the same, one can easily imagine close-ups from revered works treated to his deadly billboard simplifications. Possibly the artist’s more thorough and traditional skills found him less anxious or scornful of past achievements. Much later in his career he was eventually tempted into quotation from Picasso’s Guernica in Swimmer in the Econo-Mist No1 (1997-98) but this notably, only in passing.
Following the critical and commercial triumph of F-111, the artist continued to experiment with incorporating novel materials such as polished aluminium and Mylar panels into vast, mural-sized works such as Horse Blinders (1968-9) – which similarly occupied all four walls of the Castelli Gallery. He also adopted airbrush or spray gun for blending or blurring shapes and turned to less legible photographic sources, more abstract themes. Such work pursued the kind of formal excitement flagged in Lanai, but jettisoned overt sexual content for a more technological treatment of immersion and dissolution. The drift away from advertising illustration also found the artist adhering more to photographic sources, most strikingly in the atypical Growth Plan (1966). Here the artist again employed an expansive scale (177.8 X 355.6 cm) and transcribed a familiar illustration to changes in bodily proportions for boys between the ages of roughly six to sixteen. Constructed as a photographic tableau upon a sports ground using perspective to equalise the boys’ heights (and gauge proportions), the image itself contains a strong Surrealist element that the artist obviously considered sufficient in itself. Yet a sustained picture plane, with background and foreground and nine full-length figures proves strangely inert for the billboard treatment. Clearly it is one thing to reduce a glamorous model or foodstuffs to broad tonalities in glimpses; it is another to ask this approach to carry more unusual and exacting content. The picture demonstrates a distinct limit to the billboard treatment. This is not long before artists turn to a more careful examination of photographic qualities through painting and the emergence of Photorealism. It is telling that Rosenquist remained ambivalent about such attention, even in his biography in 2008. And it is surely no coincidence that his subsequent work from this time takes a more technical and abstract approach, as in Flamingo Capsule (1970).
Before the artist could pursue this direction however, his life met with disaster. On the 12th of February 1971, while driving with his wife and young son in Tampa, Florida, his car was sideswiped by an oncoming one, spun out of control, only to be hit side-on by a following vehicle in rainy conditions. The artist escaped lightly, with three broken ribs and severe concussion but his wife and son were not so fortunate. His wife, Mary Lou, was in a coma for a month, his son John, for six weeks. Even after recovering consciousness neither could speak for some time. Their injuries to bones and organs took much longer to heal and involved lengthy rehabilitation. Apart from the physical pain and psychological trauma, the artist was confronted with enormous and ongoing medical expenses. These radically altered his work plans. He battled depression, switched studios, scrambled for commissions and income, threw himself into political activism and roamed widely, all of which contributed to the end of his marriage. Work from this period grows sharper, stylistically more realistic, even fussy, involves less sharing or switching of colours, while choice of imagery strays further from advertising; grows more obscure, even mystical, as in Slipping Off The Continental Divide (1973). Again, reproduction hardly hints at the imposing scale (259.4 X 668.3 cm) but the reduction does allow one to confirm a more recognisably Surrealist project.
Other work from this time juggles scale to objects against flat or empty grounds and exchanges the dynamics of something like Flamingo Capsule for a stricter, more decorative feel, as in Sheer Line (1977). Work still occasionally rhymes feminine presence with food and an inverted automobile, as in Facet (1978) but overall the seventies present a much drier, linear approach that dwells upon themes of containment or conveyance. Given the underlying Surrealist tendency, a trickier issue concerns the degree to which the artist is prepared to alter or fictionalise an object and the degree to which he is committed to merely collating found images. His means of linking imagery, as noted, broadens throughout his career and the seventies sees more ingenious positioning within and upon objects, but at its core the work relies on the recognition of disparate objects in puzzling relations, upon how much the artist is prepared to compromise one with the other. This is really the measure of the artist’s project and more or less steers the rest of his career.
Two developments advance the issue. The first is the introduction of a zigzagging edge, a kind of deep serration to the cropping or collage of images. The second is the use of the night sky or celestial imagery as an all embracing background or cosmic setting. The first is a novel remedy to defining and integrating an image; the second allows spectacular depth to a background while remaining tantalisingly abstract. Both achieve prominence in the enormous Star Thief (1980) measuring 518.2 X 1,402.1 cm and constructed from a grid of rectangular panels, much like F-111. Here the work achieves some of the scale of an actual billboard only to rob the broad technique of its impact at a more conventional scale in fine art. Indeed, to inspect the lower panels at close range, where outer space is rendered perfunctorily with a spray gun can be fairly unrewarding. However the bulk of interest lies in the upper portions of the picture and these are best regarded at some distance. Surprisingly, the artist returns to a smiling hostess and prepared food but in lieu of automotive accompaniment as masculine counterpart, the artist has progressed to more anonymous machine parts, gears to the centre, an engineering pillow block to the left, where the composition pitches upward, a little awkwardly.
Stripped of more familiar context or marketing opportunity, the woman now simply floats in a spectacular vacuum. The bacon, subtly merged with her shoulder grants it a bizarre bodily extension, again an invitation to consummation as much as consumption, while machinery bleakly indicates other workings to her body, possibly a masculine relation. But it is the shredded, zigzagging edges to her upper face or head that are the most striking feature to the composition. These undeniably suggest some more urgent, aggressive intervention, a kind of clawing or tearing that does not so much expose an inner working as inscrutable fragments to another picture (here, electrical cabling). Interestingly, this technique is applied only to women’s faces throughout his work and while it later invites other, less pointed templates, as in Jungle Presence (1987) it remains firstly an attitude to femininity, a means of dancing around clues or cues on the way to a bigger, more comprehensible picture. Following works are perhaps more focussed or explicit in this, such as the smaller Embrace II (1983) but in Star Thief it remains part of an extravagant, outsized statement on personal isolation and disintegration. It teases out a thread to his Pop Art roots, but by this stage stands in stark contrast to the kind of Neo-Expressionist treatments of deeply personal or private encounters that attract considerable attention in the art world. Rosenquist now presents the antithesis of such appeals to the primitive and intimate. The work relishes a kind of American bombast that is here carried to grotesque heights, is magnificent and folly in equal measure. It is entirely appropriate the artist appeared in a cameo (as himself) in the movie Wall Street (1986), director Oliver Stone’s anthem to the era’s financial greed and corruption.
While the background to Star Thief marks a step to greater pictorial unity, it prompts the question of why the figure does not enjoy greater integration as well? Why could not the female figure simply become a kind of robot – or better – android? (to pace a contemporary movie like Bladerunner). Surrealism deals in such fiction just as much as conundrums of scale, space, surface or texture and Rosenquist already allows selected merging to objects, as noted, the rasher of bacon with the woman’s shoulder. So why stop there? Why could he not extend such invention? It is particularly germane given the increasing care and planning devoted to such large works. The answer would seem to be because part of the attraction is a display of passive transcription or illustration, a demonstration of confined virtuosity that relies upon resisting a signature style or content. This impersonal aspect is certainly crucial to Pop Art, but later in his career as the artist ups the stakes in realism and detail at a billboard scale, more imagination or invention begins to argue with mere illustration. The work oscillates uneasily between deft renderings and artful arrangements. Rosenquist wants to be more than just an illustrator, but for this not to get in the way of his illustration. There are experiments where the artist introduces a looser, more painterly facture - in as much as outsize scale allows - such as While the Earth Revolves at Night (1982) which sidesteps the problem up to a point but finally proves unconvincing as virtuosity largely because freer brushwork cannot quite keep up with scale or precision to objects.
A number of works from this time adopt a garden or floral setting behind the zigzag templates to women’s faces, giving the theme a less daunting appeal to nature and a vaguely Biblical tenor. In works such as The Persistence of Electrical Nymphs in Space (1985) space is no more than glimpses of blue behind a field of flowers, but an infinite, desolate expanse is still the message. The title incidentally, sounds like a Philip K. Dick novel, echoing the science fiction undertone to Star Thief. The glimpsed women significantly are identified with electricity here, to some extent justifying the lightening-like zigzags and it is really these hints to a beautiful face that provide the energy or excitement. Beyond themes of nature and allure there is finally the sheer dynamics to the picture’s composition that claim ultimate interest. The artist’s abiding concern with abstraction now comes to this bid for dazzle or pizzazz. Perhaps sensing this reduction, the artist made a number of unexpected forays throughout the nineties, such as the Photorealist dolls wrapped in cellophane (Gift Wrapped Doll #17 (1992), which are respectable as Photorealism, but scarcely recognisable as a Rosenquist and so pose a different problem for virtuosity. Then there were a series of close-ups of hands pointing pistols at the viewer against blank grounds, such as This is Not a Pistol (1996) which were equally anonymous. More intriguingly, there was a series of pictures based upon a photograph of a meteor with a comet-like trail introduced to unlikely scenes of art history, such as The Meteor Hits Monet’s Garden (1996-7). If these are not immediately recognisable as Rosenquists, it is hard to think who else might attempt such an eccentric vision. Here the artist does convincingly introduce a more vigorous facture to quite large works (259.1 X 182.9 cm) unfortunately it is in another’s signature.
This temptation to pastiche also signals a loosening of image sources around this time, permitting reproductions of drawings and graphics as well as historical painting and sculpture and once more, additional materials. This growing range is best represented by the panoramic The Holy Roman Empire through Checkpoint Charlie (1994) not quite to the scale of Star Thief but an impressive 236.2 X 1,204 cm; incorporating a ladder, burnt wood, metal pins and fabric. Here the artist’s virtuosity can blithely range across Photorealism, art historical allusion, distinctive zigzag edges and obscure scientific imaging. The work is Post Modernist to a fault, effortlessly out-distancing a younger generation of followers such as David Salle, Robert Longo or Jeff Koons. The artist returns to a more directly political or perhaps ideological theme of culture and technology in the service of conquest and oppression. It is not of course, the actual Roman Empire that is depicted anymore than Berlin’s notorious Checkpoint Charlie, but rather ominous parallels in the broader, post-cold war world, particularly for America. In any case, one is still aware of a certain brittleness, a resistance to merging or blurring differences between objects. But in the final analysis this is surely compensated by the sparkling succession of fragments culminating in the fiery sweep to the right side panels. Dazzle once more trumps invention.
The theme is reprised in the even larger The Swimmer in the Econo-mist #1 (1997-8) but sheds fussy Photorealism, distant backgrounds, literal destruction, a richer palette and sculptural accessories for pure dazzle. It measures 352.4 x 2,752.7 cm and focuses on an explosive overall composition that does not so much swim as churns a maelstrom of marketing and illustrational hyperbole. It is action painting without the painting; a designer’s un-briefed plunge into the void. As noted, the artist retains allusion to Picasso’s Guernica, fittingly touching on themes of war and tradition, but the mist contains much more. The right-side panels toy with Kellogg’s cereal packaging as a further reach of an insidious empire while the left panels stealthily allude to the ‘Stealth Bomber’, the F-117 Nighthawk . This does not just update F-111; but pursues the vision much further into abstraction. As such, The Swimmer in the Econo-Mist #1 properly represents the climax to the artist’s career. It also signals a closing phase, as he concentrates on a sparkling, spiralling version of abstraction that dwells upon the metaphysics of the speed of light and the relativity of time. A late work, such as Multiverse – You Are I Am (2012) posits a kind of cosmic Cubism; surrenders still more to ambiguity in its illustration, measures its edges against mysterious geometry. The figurative treatment converges upon light, cedes volume, focus, perspective and proportion and is framed on generous terms. It is a gentle closing statement to a project that has yet to attract followers.
But the artist’s standing is really to be measured by his Pop Art phase and subsequent more linear and unified approach to painting from collage. There, he balanced virtuosity in illustration against invention in theme and absorbed a Post Modernist taste for eclecticism and pastiche. The work remained respected and well represented in public and corporate collections. If his career seems to span a golden era for American painting in retrospect, a fitting comparison might be the prestige of German painter Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Like Rosenquist, Richter commenced as a Pop Artist, sampling a wider range of photography and concentrating on a distinctive blurring, not quite camera generated, nor strictly a printing characteristic and from which he steadily progressed to large-scale gestural abstraction by the eighties. Like Rosenquist, his training included public murals and academic drawing and like Rosenquist, he is a voracious collector of source photography and has proved enormously prolific and versatile. Yet, Richter consistently resists drawing and line and instead is committed to heavy painterly facture generated with industrial-strength squeegees and even planks, addresses abstraction as essentially gross gesture and indeterminate outcome. One places a premium upon virtuosity and planning, the other on blunt instrumentation and direct, continuous engagement. Richter has certainly been the more influential so far and if anything confirms the eclipse of American painting. But perhaps because of this, Rosenquist’s project may well await rediscovery.