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Sign language.


IN 1966, JAMES ROSENQUIST WAS "THE MAN IN THE PAPER SUIT." Or at least that was the title of a New York magazine profile that chronicled his exploits wearing the brown paper suit he had commissioned the fashion designer Horst to construct for him. Rosenquist wore the outfit to gallery and museum openings and, on one occasion, appeared in it at a panel discussion on Pop art in Toronto, where he shared the stage with media pundit Marshall McLuhan. Although it may have seemed on the surface like nothing more than a one-note joke or gag--a literally flimsy Pop gesture (Rosenquist reportedly obtained the special paper from the Kleenex company)--his paper suit spoke to many of the central concerns treated in his paintings of the time. It reflected on a culture of disposability and planned obsolescence at the same time that it called attention to the lure of novelty and fashion (paradoxically, people took note of the outfit precisely because of its banal material). Rosenquist had already explored the subject of men's fashion in works such as Necktie, 1961, and 1947, 1948, 1950, 1960, which offer close-up views of various configurations of shirt collars, suit lapels, and neckwear. In these paintings, he focuses on the details of business attire as emblems of postwar American middle-class masculinity while simultaneously using them as abstracted compositional elements. Rosenquist's persona as a Pop artist was from early on constructed around a very different sort of outfit: the paint-spattered work clothes that he wore while employed as a billboard painter throughout the 1950s (photographs of Rosenquist posing in that uniform appear frequently in the monographic literature on the artist). His workman's garb stood in sharp contrast to the finely tailored suits worn by the admen on Madison Avenue, even if Rosenquist was effectively connected to the same industry of advertising. In some ways, then, Rosenquist's paper suit--as picked up on in the title of the New York article--served as a knowing riposte to that emblem of '50s conformity, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The title character of that novel (portrayed by Gregory Peck in the film) pursued a career, one should note, in public relations.

The paper suit is not, alas, on view in the current retrospective exhibition of Rosenquist's work. The show, organized by Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, opened in May in Houston (where it was divided between the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts) and travels to the Guggenheim branches in New York and Bilbao. While such a show will no doubt serve the expected task of reaffirming Rosenquist's status as a major postwar American painter, it also offers us the opportunity to reconsider some of the less immediately visible and perhaps more experimental aspects of his oeuvre. Viewers will certainly be drawn to the big paintings for which Rosenquist has become known. These signature works--monumental in size and generally oriented in horizontal landscape format--combine a dizzying mix of fragmentary images that range from magnified renderings of the female form to depictions of aviation and space travel. Yet the show also features much smaller works that are in their own way of equal importance to Rosenquist's project--particularly the source collages that the artist assembled as studies for his paintings beginning in the early 1960s. The relation between these small preliminary studies and the much larger finished works offers crucial insight into Rosenquist's working practice. For if he culled many of the images for the collages from the pages of Life magazine, he took them not from copies picked up at the newsstand but from issues that were a decade or so old. To cite just one example, the front end of the car in the 1961 painting I Love You with My Ford is in fact that of a 1950 model. As he stated in an important 1964 interview with the critic Gene Swenson that appeared in Art News: "I use images from old magazines--when I say old, I mean 1945 to 1955--a time we haven't started to ferret out as history yet. If it was the front end of a new car there would be people who would be passionate about it, and the front end of an old car might make some people nostalgic." By bringing to light this feature of Rosenquist's methods, the collages speak of an artist concerned with the distinctive experience of time in consumer culture. Moreover, with their torn edges, smudges and dabs of paint, and hastily scrawled notations, they are also significantly "artier"--that is to say, more expressive--than the slickly rendered paintings. This perhaps explains why Rosenquist didn't exhibit the collages until relatively recently (they were first shown as a group at New York's Gagosian Gallery in 1992). After all, he is part of a generation of artists (which also includes Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol) who were determined to reject the expressive legacy of the Abstract Expressionist painters. Like so many of his peers, Rosenquist took great pains to jettison evidence of the artist's touch from his work. Yet the collages show just how much effort it took to create paintings that looked machinelike and devoid of expression. If the juxtaposition of found image fragments provided a means early on to move away from expressive abstraction at the same time that it offered a possible way to deconstruct the workings of advertising imagery, in some of Rosenquist's more recent works the relation between abstraction and commercial figuration seems to have shifted in a new direction. In paintings such as After Berlin II, 1998, and The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light, 2000, it is as if the gleaming surfaces and Day-Glo objects that have for so long been depicted in the artist's work have been subjected to such radical and dizzying distortions that they have become almost completely abstract.

As with his signature fragmentation of images, the large scale of much of Rosenquist's work was initially intended to offer the viewer some critical perspective on commercial imagery by calling attention to its numbing blankness. I'm reminded of Arts Magazine reviewer Amy Goldin's vivid description of Rosenquist's mammoth, wraparound F-111, 1964-65, at the time of the painting's first showing, as a "worm's-eye view, confused, nearly blind, of gross and baffling presences." Yet one might also feel that at times this monumental size becomes merely an end in itself, serving primarily to confront the viewer with an overwhelming visual experience. It is refreshing, then, to see that some of the artist's most affecting works of recent years are among his smallest, particularly the "Gift Wrapped Dolls" of the early 1990s. (Yes, each of these is still relatively large at five feet square, but nowhere near the immense size of many of his paintings.) All the hallmarks of Rosenquist's mature style--the slick rendering, the vibrant Pop colors, the sustained attention to the surfaces of commodity objects--are brought together to imbue these works with an uncanny psychological resonance. The dolls face us with the promise of a look back that is never fulfilled, while the depicted cellophane barrier--interposed between viewer and doll--invokes the frustration of childhood desires. The cellophane wrap is also used to startling painterly effect: In each of these works Rosenquist offers us a recognizable image that nonetheless melts at various points into abstraction. Inasmuch as these paintings give us something different from what we've come to expect from the artist--no monumental scale, no jarring juxtaposition of montaged elements--they underscore his frequent willingness to experiment with form.

Another feature of Rosenquist's practice that may not be so immediately visible in a conventional museum show is his oftentimes rather refreshing disregard for the sanctity of the art object. On several early occasions, Rosenquist completely repainted works he had already exhibited (hence the painting-construction titled Candidate, 1963, repainted as Silo, 1963-64) or destroyed works outright (as with early sculptures such as Untitled [Catwalk] and AD, Soap Box Tree, both 1963). This approach even extends to F-111, that landmark of '60s art, which is sure to be a centerpiece of the exhibition in New York (the work was not on view in Houston and will not travel to Bilbao). Consider that, according to the artist's own account, the fifty-one individual panels that comprise the massive eighty-six-foot-long painting were originally intended to be sold off individually, thus effectively destroying the work as a unified whole. During the course of the work's initial gallery exhibition in 1965, Rosenquist's dealer Leo Castelli seems to have done just that--sold various panels to individual buyers--until collector Robert Scull intervened and bought back the complete painting, reportedly on the day after the show closed. I, for one, would have preferred the originally planned fragmentation to Scull's quasi-heroic reconstitution of the work. Its dispersal into numerous collections surely would have tested the mettle of any curator wanting to reassemble the painting for a show such as this one. When exhibited, the work would have inevitably been incomplete, with at least a few panels always missing. The painting would have existed whole only in photographs and remained a fragmentary presence, which, like the artist's paper suit, would have attested to the more fleeting qualities of Rosenquist's art.

Michael Lobel is assistant professor of art history at Bard College in Annandale-on Hudson, New York.

Marcia Tucker

I had first seen Rosenquist's work at Leo Castelli's gallery in 1966 and thought that his huge works like F-III, with their unlikely juxtapositions of images, took a very different approach to painting. Then I started as associate curator at the Whitney sometime during the last months of 1968 and I was going to as many artists' studios as possible. I could tell that something unusual was in the air, an eccentric view of what art might be. It's important to remember that there was a huge amount of interest in phenomenology in the art world at that time. Everyone was reading Merleau-Ponty's Signs (1964), and people were very excited by the idea that art didn't have to be about what you perceived but about the very act of perception. This interest largely manifested itself in sculpture, like Bruce Nauman's early work, for example--thinking about art not in terms of objects but as a catalyst for experience on the part of the viewer. I remember Richard Serra sitting in my loft around this time and saying, "Forget it. Painting is dead." I laughed and said, "Yeah, Richard, for a sculptor of course it is!" But I started to think about that, about whether painting was doomed to tradition, bound to illusion.

When I began to organize an exhibition with James Monte called "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials," which was all about this new kind of sculpture, it became clear to me that Rosenquist's painting operated in a very similar way. It was neither abstract nor nonobjective, but it was doing something different with images to create a nonnarrative structure, an unfamiliar one at that. At the same time, the painting was a painting: It didn't pretend to be an image or picture of something else. One of the things that I especially liked about the work was that the experience of time, distance, and movement, as well as the concept of change, were embedded in it. And change--perceptual shifts, a sense of intense and fractured movement, fluctuations of scale, shifts in spatial relationships--isn't something you normally think of in terms of painting, at least when it comes to narrative painting or nonobjective painting. This dynamic also had a great deal to do with process--not the process of applying paint but the process of making something, of sharing this experience with the viewer. It was a startling discovery for me, a very thought-provoking one, and it certainly expanded the possibilities of painting as I saw it.

Mara Tucker founded the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in 1977, and served as its director until 1999. She teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, and is currently writing a memoir.

Frank Stella

There's a picture Hollis Frampton took in the mid-'60s of me in Rosenquist's studio sitting in front of Growth Plan--a painting of little kids at camp. I probably first met Jim around the time that photograph was taken. I knew him a little bit, just as I knew all the other artists. The art scene in New York was pretty casual then, and it wasn't a big deal to visit someone's studio, whether it was Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, Larry Poons, or John Chamberlain. It was straightforward: You did occasional studio business, saw the shows, and met after exhibition dinners--a lot of Chinese dinners. Today people may look back at the '60s and see a division between abstract painting and painters who were doing Pop, but at the time it wasn't a question of taking sides, because there really weren't any sides. Everybody was in it together. By and large, the scene, including Minimalists, Pop artists, Color Field painters, and leftover Abstract Expressionists, was fluid and well integrated. Certainly I didn't think there was any opposition between my work and Rosenquist's.

I loved Growth Plan. I felt a connection to his paintings' scale--those canvases were big by the standards of their time--and the way he used scale to make a dramatic pictorial statement. His sign-painting technique and materials also helped him to get away from standard art procedures, a desire I shared. If you say Jim's work at the time came out of billboard painting, then you could say mine came out of house painting. Of course, the move away front art procedures and paints had precedents--the Mexican muralists and Pollock used enamel, for example. Even Picasso was using house paint and metallic paint. Still, Jim's work in particular had some influence on me that didn't show up maybe until later on. I think he must be influencing the mural-size paintings I'm doing now. In fact, I think in some ways his work has been getting stronger over time. His new work, with its inclusiveness, seems to have crystallized into an idea about how you see the world. It seems to be a little sharper somehow, more intense, more brought together--less like a landscape. The best billboards are the simplest, but he can make a complex billboard with the punch of a simple one. It's less like a snapshot and more like a determined photograph.

Frank Stella's exhibition "Bamboo," featuring new work inspired by the photo essay "Balinese Character" by anthropologists Batelon and Mead, was on view last spring at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Robert Rauschenberg

Jim Rosenquist is as generous in art as he is in politics. No one goes hungry while being exposed to the fields of images in his paintings. His compositions are organized in content and color as if they were a public/social alarm. The alarm is positive. The degree of optimism in his work is by degree, but always there. En masse, the works are a welcome and a celebration of life in the broadest sense.

Jim and I are as unique in our art as we are in our friendship and politics. We celebrate nearly a half century of mutual admiration of our common and uncommon lives.

Robert Rauschenberg's work will be on view at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy, from February to June 2004.

Ed Ruscha

In the summer of 1962 Joe Goode and I hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York, where we met Andy Warhol at his firehouse studio. He said, "Let's go down and see Jim Rosenquist." So we went down to Rosenquist's studio on Coenties Slip--we were there for maybe an hour or so. I remember him working on a painting that had basketball players in it, called Painting for the American Negro. He had a wall phone with what seemed like hundreds of numbers tacked up around it. He had a really messy studio that was sort of perfect for what he was doing, with visuals all over the walls and floor.

I connected with Rosenquist because we're midwesterners, although I was more from the Southwest and Oklahoma. This was more or less my first trip to New York, and I was wowed by the city. The fact that somebody came from North Dakota, or Minnesota, that somebody from those simple places went to a big city like that and started to interpret the fast, modern world--it took my breath away. I was inspired by him for that reason.

I always appreciated the abstractness of his work, plus the fact that there were fragments of real life that he would explore. I identified with some fragments immediately, like his painting I Love You with My Ford. My first car was that Ford, so that was an identifier for me. Early on, I also thought he was audacious because he would put three-dimensional objects on a canvas and then paint over them as though they weren't there. I felt like that was breaking new ground, an entirely new voice in the landscape. And Rosenquist is still difficult to define, I think. Sometimes you can get a line on an artist, and the artist finally sort of navigates this line that people have drawn around him. Rosenquist avoided that. He did one thing after another, and somehow over the span of his entire life they all relate to one another--yet, individually, they clash. He could paint an object that was mundane and terrifying at the same time. And that's what I like about his work.

A retrospective of Ed Ruscha's drawings will open at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in July 2004.

Barbara Kruger

Rosenquist's work has all these beautifully thought-out, sumptuous, wonderful juxtapositions. There's a fluency to how his images work together--how they both mesh and clash. I think that comes from his experience with sign painting, working with vernacular images, playing with them on a grand scale, through which he seems to have developed a designer's eye. In a world in which almost everything seems designed--from botany and bodies to the built environment--it's clear that every creative decision is engaging questions of the "look." This incremental process of arranging things moves toward a kind of semblance of beauty. Rosenquist seems to have used the constraints of a client relationship, something designers deal with all the time--you're doing the Avis account this week, the Benetton account next week--and transformed what he learned on the job into his work, morphing someone else's image of perfection into his own, making it art.

The power of his visual disjunctions plays like a kind of pre-Photoshop Photoshop. It's the notion of the crop, the zoom, the close-up, the fragment--which would not have been possible without the growth and preponderance of photographic technology. And the move from photographic to digital technology has accelerated this kind of visual play. People who grew up with television and movies, and now computers with their streaming digital feeds, read information quickly. Rosenquist's imagery works very well in this context. His paintings have a matte quality but are glossy when reproduced. They seem context friendly and easily adapt from one medium to another: from the surface of the painting to the surface of the page and the screen. It's interesting, because as paintings they benefit from scale, but as reproductions they benefit from surface.

A major installation by Barbara Kruger is on view in "me & more" at the Kunstmuseum Luzern through next month. She is currently at work on a video project.

David Salle

I met Jim sometime in the early '80s--Peter Schjeldahl brought him around to a show of mine. He seemed curious about younger painters. I had grown up knowing his work but really saw it in depth at the Whitney retrospective in 1986, which was dazzling. I was seeing a lot of the things for the first time, and I remember thinking how different the work felt from the way it had been encapsulated in the official version, partly because you saw only certain works, in reproduction. You saw only the classic paintings, never the really nutty ones with constructions and neon, or with the plastic bag full of paint tied to string hanging from a stretcher bar. In person, you saw that the range of his work was wide, experimental, and risky. He was willing to take even a very thin idea all the way to its conclusion. He didn't always need imagery; he could make a painting out of very little.

Jim has a classical understanding of the way light and shadow describe a form, which he then translates into the sign painter's shorthand. The billboard technique is really classical shorthand. Gridding up is, of course, the Renaissance version of projection. The subject in Jim's work is not the thing so much as the picture of the thing--the thing that has already been pictured. He continues a long line that marks the shift of subject from nature to culture. At the same time, the space in his work is a version of the Cubist space that has dominated picture making for ninety years and has only recently started to come apart. In a Cubist collage, the transitions are subsumed into the character of the mark making, and in Jim's work, the transitions are the point: One thing smashing into another thing is where the action takes place. The innovation in his work--its stylistic hallmark--is the crash cut. Or the "smash cut," I think it's called in movies.

I really admire his hand. Jim is technically one of the best painters in the world. All that creamy paint. Would my work have been possible without his work? I don't know. Maybe not. There is one particular group of paintings of mine, the early product paintings from 1993, in which I deliberately tried to mimic Rosenquist or, more accurately, to proceed from his starting point. Larry [Gagosian] did a show of Jim's early work, which included collages as source materials. These sources were so beautiful, and Jim had clearly moved on in his work to something else entirely. He started to move out of the grid organization, and the images lost their period feel. I thought, "If Jim isn't going to pursue that line, then I will." I used the the look of a Rosenquist collage as a sign for a lost past.

David Salle's work is on view this month at Waddington Galleries, London.

Richard Phillips

Rosenquist's paintings presented me with the most radical idea of what Pop art could be. Even more than Warhol or Rauschenberg, Rosenquist brings both a kind of beauty and an idea of the spectacular into his pictures. I'm thinking back to the early paintings, those super-surreal, phenomenally disorienting images that seem critical of a media-based society. But I also think of his show at Leo Castelli in 1993, with paintings of dolls in wrappers. For me, that was a break from what is commonly understood about Rosenquist, and took place at a moment when painting had been put in a difficult position by events like Jeff Koons's "Banality" show (1988), which shed such a harsh light on consumerism in art and entertainment. At the time, a lot of painting was attempting to be critical but served only as a kind of retrograde entertainment. Rosenquist's work, on the other hand, with its sign-painting history, wasn't divested of its own physical and critical position. Rosenquist bore down on a specific and perverse reality. He used a singular iconic image--upending his own process, you could say--to get beyond the literal meaning of pictures. It's not about advertising; it's about the enormous image blowing away meaning, putting the experience of paint right up front. The incredible opacity of that was very inspiring. In a way, Rosenquist is the original punk. I mean, he showed up for interviews wearing a paper suit! And at every point, he sets up a critical relationship with the insulation of imagery in mechanized and commercialized society, taking imagery beyond the point of recognizable intentionality.

When you look at early writing on his work, you see that he was often considered cynical or conservative--basically because his painting was all about unsettled meaning, and people didn't understand his fragmentary language. But Rosenquist is a real stepping-off point for work today. His image combinations ask you to find relationships among those images and to create another space within your own mind. I think he called it a "psychic projection screen." It's a kind of psychic realism, which he originated in the terms of an American Pop media sensibility. And I feel like one of painting's real possibilities right now is to address that realism.

Richard Phillips's new paintings will be shown at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, in January 2004.

MICHAEL LOBEL is assistant professor of art history at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and the author of Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art (Yale University Press, 2002). The recipient of grants and fellowships from the Getty Research Institute, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Henry Luce Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, he is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. In this issue, Lobel looks back on the career of James Rosenquist and interviews Barbara Kruger, Richard Phillips, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, David Salle, Frank Stella, and Marcia Tucker about the Pop artist's lasting legacy. PHOTO: SAM SIMON
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Title Annotation:James Rosenquist retrospective prompts thoughts on the artist's influence yesterday and today
Author:Lobel, Michael
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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