James Rosenquist’s works are on view at both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn. The pop artist spoke with the magazine’s Courtney Jordan.
When you were starting out, you worked as a billboard painter in New York City?
I painted the Astor-Victoria sign seven times, and it’s 395 feet wide and 58 feet high. I dropped a gallon of purple paint on Seventh Avenue and 47th Street from 15 stories up and didn’t kill anybody. I dropped a brush at Columbus Circle. It fell on a guy’s camel-hair coat. He never noticed it, and down his back was a dark green stripe. I brought artistic skill to my sign painting. I made movie stars look better. I made them real. That experience helped my fine art.
You paint on a huge scale not unlike Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel. Are you giving him a run for his money?
I’ve wondered if during the Renaissance, I would have been good enough to be an assistant to Rubens or Michelangelo. They were some good old boys. But you couldn’t get a job back then unless it was painting St. Sebastian or Jesus.
You paint bluejeans, nails, bacon, beer bottles, drill bits. What’s the attraction?
I’m not like Andy Warhol. He did Coca-Cola bottles and Brillo pads. I used generic imagery—no brand names—to make a new kind of picture. People can remember their childhood, but events from four or five years ago are in a never-never land. That was the imagery I was concerned with—things that were a little bit familiar but not things you feel nostalgic about. Hot dogs and typewriters—generic things people sort of recognize.
Pop Art is often characterized as frivolous, but you have addressed nuclear war, Vietnam, the environment, AIDS. Are you the conscience of Pop Art?
That is a silly question. I’m just a painter. All my life I just do any damn thing I feel like. Lo and behold, some people like it and pay a lot of money for it. I’m not anything. I’m just curious. Doesn’t everybody do that? Picasso did Guernica. Goya’s paintings—incredible. I think Roy [Lichtenstein] and Andy Warhol were serious. Warhol was questioning the capitalist society. Certainly I have made comments on American society with the various pictures, and have done about nine antiwar paintings. But I did them because I was incorporating my feelings into my work.
Is it hard to let your work go?
When I started out, I didn’t want to sell anything because I was developing my ideas. I was trying to gather strength by putting a number of pictures together. I also kept my union card for billboard painting, so I didn’t care. But I thought to myself, I have empty pockets. I could buy more paint and canvas. Now, the works are spread out all over the world, Singapore to Cologne, Germany. But I never let anything go out of my studio if I don’t think it has something, an essence, because it could wind up in a museum.