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

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But the public, perhaps tired of puzzling meaning out of abstractions, seemed to get it. “Bing . . . Bang . . . Pop Art,” an article in Glamour declared. “It will boom on. Expect Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein to become household words like Liz and Dick and Mr. Clean.” Yet while Warhol and Lichtenstein rode the Pop wave, Rosenquist began trying other things. “I don’t know what Pop art is, to tell you the truth,” he would say years later. “I never liked the label because it sounds like something that comes and goes quickly. Instant gratification.”

In the summer of 1964, Rosenquist returned from Europe, where he’d had several shows, feeling somewhat alienated from his homeland. (JFK had been assassinated six months before.) At an amusement park near his parents’ home in Dallas, an old B-36 bomber had been installed for children to climb on; it stuck in his mind. Later that year, he read about a new fighter plane being developed for the escalating Vietnam War, got drawings for it and began sketching. He spent eight months on the painting, which he named after the new aircraft—F-111. The work, 10 feet high and 86 feet long, filled 51 panels and wrapped around the front room of the Leo Castelli Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

From tip to tail, F-111 depicts a fighter plane streaking across what Rosenquist called “a contemporary modern-day flak of household things.” Panels show a huge radial tire, a mushroom cloud, spaghetti, and a little girl beneath a hair dryer. Rosenquist explained in Hughes’ American Visions: “I thought of this new war device that’s a defense economy item, supporting aircraft workers, each with two-and-a-half statistical children in Texas or New England or wherever. And I thought that being an artist was insignificant.”

F-111 was an immediate sensation. It was hailed as “the apotheosis of Pop,” and its purchase, in 1965, for $60,000, made the New York Times. While the painting toured Europe, Rosenquist cemented his reputation as an eccentric—and made sport of the flimsiness of trends—by wearing a suit he tailored out of paper to parties and art shows. By then, Pop was spreading ever deeper into American culture, but Rosenquist, now in his mid-30s, moved on, experimenting with sculpture and incorporating such materials as barbed wire, Plexiglas and sheets of Mylar into his works.

Then everything changed. On February 12, 1971, Rosenquist, his wife and their 7-year-old son, John, were vacationing in Florida when their car was hit broadside by another car on a rainy night. Rosenquist suffered a perforated lung and three broken ribs. His wife and son were each left in a coma. “Life was instantaneously terrible,” he recalled. While his wife and child remained unconscious—his son for five weeks, his wife for four months—Rosenquist faced mounting hospital bills. Sixty thousand dollars in debt, he spent the 1970s digging out of depression, and after his family recovered, divorce.

As an opponent of the Vietnam War, Rosenquist was arrested during an anti-war protest in 1972 and lost commissions when he criticized the politics of potential patrons. With Pop now passé, critics circled like vultures around his reputation. Influential New York Times critic John Canaday likened Rosenquist’s 1972 retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art to a wake, and his work, to a corpse. Seeking respite from the New York art scene, Rosenquist moved in 1973 to East Tampa, Florida, where he created a studio out of two abandoned dime stores. There he worked ferociously on paintings, prints and sculptures, many of which convey a sense of foreboding. One canvas, Slipping Off the Continental Divide, featured a stairway, a handful of nails and an open book turned facedown. Other works, constructed out of wires, wrecked auto parts and techno-paraphernalia, suggest a man struggling to preserve his humanity in an increasingly mechanized world.

During the 1980s, Rosenquist’s work was back in vogue and his paintings began to sell, he says, “like popcorn.” In 1981, Florida’s DadeCountyArt in Public Places Committee selected Rosenquist’s Star Thief (above) to hang in the Eastern Airlines terminal at Miami’s airport. The 46-foot-long painting included a woman’s fragmented face and floating bacon superimposed on a starry background. “Star Thief,” Rosenquist says, is “about the idea of astronauts trying to keep their sanity by bringing things from Earth with them into space, little mementos of home.” Eastern Airlines chairman Frank Borman, who, as an astronaut in 1968 had circled the moon on Apollo VIII, was vehemently opposed to the selection and even tried to have the Art in Public Places program abolished. “Although I am admittedly unschooled in modern art,” he said at the time, “I have had some exposure to space flight and I can tell you without equivocation there is not any correlation between the artist’s depiction and the real thing.” After three years of debate, DadeCounty officials announced they would not be going ahead with the $285,000 purchase. Shrugging off the decision, Rosenquist returned to his canvases.

The past two decades have seen no diminution in his vivid and enigmatic imagery. His 1988 Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil juxtaposed a needle, a flower, a human brain scan and a pair of high heels, and his three-part, room-size The Swimmer in the Econo-mist, done in 1997 for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, contrasts figures from Picasso’s 1937 anti-Fascist painting Guernica with glittering industrial images and brightly colored logos from consumer goods. Contemporary critics do their best to decipher these montages, reading Rosenquist’s work as overlapping billboards, Freudian symbols from his childhood, or Surrealism à la Belgian artist René Magritte. In the exhibition catalog Rosenquist offers his own interpretation: “In collage there is a glint . . . or reflection of modern life. For example, if you take a walk through midtown Manhattan and you see the back of a girl’s legs and then you see out of the corner of your eye a taxi comes close to hitting you. So—the legs, the car—you see parts of things and you rationalize and identify danger by bits and pieces. It’s very quick. It’s about contemporary life.”

Other clues lie in his current Florida home and studio, 45 miles north of Tampa. (He also maintains a studio in New York City, and a home in Bedford, New York, with his second wife, Mimi Thompson, and their 14-year-old daughter, Lily.) Most artists’ studios are cluttered, but Rosenquist’s is disheveled on a grand scale. Scattered throughout the two airplane-hangar-size buildings are junked cars, an old fishing boat and—order out of chaos—several of his stunning, fluorescent canvases. When Rosenquist, dressed in old jeans, paint-spattered shoes and a black T-shirt, begins to explain them, his conversation is spiced with memories of the Depression and World War II. And just when he begins to sound like an aging North Dakota farmer, he jumps to something he read about Russia, ancient Greece or Eastern philosophy. Stories about New York in the 1960s are interwoven with theories about art and tales from his travels. And while he speaks with a friendly, Midwestern accent, he’s also a dead-on mimic. Discussing his goals as an artist, he stops and raises one finger. “I want to be clear on this,” he says. “All the art students in the 1950s liked Abstract Expressionism. It was very vigorous, and I liked it too, but I never wanted to look like I was copying someone else. I wanted to do something new.”

At the start of his 70s, Rosenquist remains, as one Artforum critic noted, the painter of “the clutter that adds up to the emptiness of American space.” He is planning a 50-footsquare mural for a San Francisco hotel and wondering where his next painting will take him. “Recently I was saying to Jasper Johns that I was having trouble with a certain painting,” he notes. “And Johns said, ‘It doesn’t get any easier, does it?’ That’s because Johns is very true to himself, and like me, very anxious not to repeat what’s already been done.”


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