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Pop artist James Rosenquist returns to the limelight with a dazzling retrospective of his larger-than-life works

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As a young man in the 1950s, James Rosenquist dabbled in shapes, squiggles and splotches like lots of young American artists in thrall to Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists. But at his day job, Rosenquist created on a larger canvas. Hanging from ropes or standing on scaffolding high above Times Square, he painted the signs of the times—billboards. Rosenquist rendered men’s shirts, celebrity faces and whiskey bottles so large he could barely recognize them from point-blank range. His billboards were enormous, but were they art? Not yet.

“I’d paint a 60-foot glass of beer beautifully, with bubbles and the right yellow and everything,” Rosenquist, 70, recalled in art critic Robert Hughes’ American Visions, “and the salesman would come along and say ‘James, that beer doesn’t have enough hops in it. Make it a little lighter.’ So I did it onethousandth degree lighter, the whole damn thing. . . . The next day I painted an Arrow shirt twenty feet high. ‘James, the collar looks dirty. You gotta change the collar’. . . . So I had all this color. I had Ford Seafoam green. I had dirty beer color, wrong hops. I had dirty Arrow shirt color. I took that paint home. . . . Then it dawned on me. Why don’t I try to make a mysterious painting by doing enlarged fragments . . . . ” While adding mystique to his studio art—juxtaposing commercial and commonplace images in bizarre combinations (a plate of spaghetti below a reclining woman and the grille of an old Ford)—Rosenquist continued to paint billboards. He was fired from some jobs, laid off from others, but his gregarious Midwestern manner kept him busy.

By 1963, the 29-year-old Rosenquist had joined Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg in America’s hottest cultural craze—Pop art. He sold out his first one-man show, at Manhattan’s Green Gallery, only to find himself belittled as one of Pop’s “New Vulgarians.” In the four decades since, he has ignored the critics and continued to create bold paintings, many so monumental they cover all four walls of a gallery, most a cryptic mix of images—from butterflies and bacon to paper clips and flowers. His montages of everyday objects have taken him beyond Pop into his own distinct interpretations of Surrealism and Photo-Realism. Now his work, which he calls “visual inflation,” is enjoying its first comprehensive exhibition since 1972.

“James Rosenquist: ARetrospective” opened last spring at the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and is on display at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum through January 25, 2004. (It will travel to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, in the spring.) The exhibition features some 200 sculptures, drawings, prints, collages and the artist’s signature, room-size paintings. “Rosenquist always seemed a unique figure to me, not like Warhol or Lichtenstein,” says the Guggenheim’s senior curator of 20th-century art, Walter Hopps, who organized America’s first Pop show in 1962 as well as the current Rosenquist exhibition. “He’s not so much a Pop artist as an imagist. He reconstructs things in really imaginative ways, with truly amazing and complex imagery.”

Some visitors to the retrospective may find themselves overwhelmed as they gawk at pencils lined up to resemble a spaceship; drill bits boring down on a lipstick’s traces; a woman’s fingernail morphing into the tip of a fountain pen. What do they all mean? “The subject matter isn’t popular images,” the artist has said. “It isn’t that at all.”

To Rosenquist, objects are less important than the associations between them. “Living in the Plains,” Rosenquist told Hopps, “you’d see surreal things; you’d see mirages. I’m sitting on the front porch, as a little kid at sunset, and the sun is in back of me, and walking across the horizon is a Trojan horse four stories tall. . . . It was the neighbor’s white stallion, which had got loose, caught the light in the heat and looked four stories tall. These kinds of little things make, I think, the curiosity, or the inquisitiveness, that make an artist.”

Born in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Rosenquist was the only child of Louis and Ruth Rosenquist, amateur pilots in the heyday of Lindbergh who had grounded themselves by the time their son was born. The Depression kept them moving. While his father worked as an airline mechanic, James attended seven schools by the time he was 12. Often alone, he developed an interest in cars, airplanes and drawing. He drew elaborate World War II battle scenes on the back of sheets of wallpaper supplied by his parents. In junior high, he won a scholarship for a class at the Minneapolis School of Art, but it wasn’t until the end of his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, when he answered an ad that read “Wanted: Artist,” that he really began to take art seriously.

The job was sign painting, and Rosenquist spent the summer roaming the Midwest with a team of hard-drinking men painting huge “Phillips 66” lettering on gas tanks and refinery equipment. The following summers, he painted billboards, turning buckets of paint into two-story gas station logos, Davy Crockett faces and other popular images of the 1950s. His art professor, Cameron Booth, urged the talented young man to go East. So in the fall of 1955, with a scholarship to the Art Students League and $400 in his pocket, the 22-year-old Rosenquist left for Manhattan. To support himself while in school, he began painting billboards again. Veteran sign painters called him Baby Jimmy, but there was nothing immature about his confidence; he talked his way into painting jobs usually reserved for more senior men and taught himself to enlarge images by superimposing them on a grid. “I thought that if I could learn that technique, I could paint anything,” he said in an interview in a 1994 catalog of his work. “I could paint the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t paint it very well, but I could paint it.”

Over a period of several months, Rosenquist painted a Schenley whiskey bottle 147 times. “I got so tired of it, one day I painted ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the label,” he told me when I visited him in his Florida studio. “You couldn’t see it from the street.” Another day he watched a fellow worker fall to his death. Later, he cheated death himself when a scaffold collapsed. In 1960, tired of “living dangerously and not doing what I wanted,” he turned his back on billboards, married textile designer Mary Lou Adams, whom he had met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and began painting full time in a studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Most of his works from this period were abstract, but inspired by the impastoed flags and targets of his friend Jasper Johns and his own billboard images, Rosenquist started to compose pictures of fragments, with images that appeared to overflow the canvas. He called his first such effort President Elect. The painting featured a piece of cake, a car fender and the face of the newly elected U.S. president, John F. Kennedy. He traced his affinity for incongruous juxtapositions to his youth. “When I was a boy,” Rosenquist told Hopps, “I went to a museum with my mother. There were on the same wall a painting, a shrunken head, and a live flower. It was almost like what they would have in an Oriental tea ceremony. Three different things. . . . ”

By the late 1950s, other artists had also begun painting artifacts of popular culture. The movement had begun in Britain, but in the United States Andy Warhol was soon painting soup cans, Roy Lichtenstein was enlarging comic-strip images, dots and all, and Rosenquist was bringing his billboards down to size. By the fall of 1962, Pop was all the rage. “Pop is about liking things,” Warhol deadpanned, though most critics did not like it. Time called it the “cult of the commonplace,” and Rosenquist was dismissed as a mere “billboard painter.” The Nation’s critic Max Kozloff asked: “Are we supposed to regard our popular sign board culture with greater fondness or insight now that we have Rosenquist? Or is he exhorting us to revile it—that is, to do what has come naturally to every sensitive person in this country for years?” In 1964, when Pop dominated the influential Venice Biennale art fair, the Vatican condemned its “grotesque relics,” and Italy’s president refused to hand out the top prize to Pop precursor Robert Rauschenberg.

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