Since the late 1950s, James Rosenquist has been creating an exceptional and consistently intriguing body of work. In the 1960s, following his early days as a billboard painter in the Midwest and New York City, he gained fame as one of the leaders of the American Pop art movement. Along with contemporaries Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, Rosenquist drew on the iconography of advertising and mass media to conjure a sense of modern life. Rosenquist’s paintings directly allude to the cultural and political tenor of the times in which they were created. From his renowned Pop canvases to his billboard-sized works and continuing with his recent use of abstract painting techniques, James Rosenquist: A Retrospective presents the artist’s enduring interest in and mastery of texture, color, line, and shape that continues to dazzle audiences and influence younger generations of artists.
Born in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Rosenquist took art classes at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as a teenager and studied painting with Cameron Booth at the University of Minnesota between 1952 and 1954. During the summers, he worked as a billboard painter and in 1955 he moved to New York to study at the Art Students League with teachers such as the German Dadaist George Grosz and American painter Edwin Dickinson. He left the Art Students League after one year and in 1957 returned to a job painting billboards, in Times Square and across the city.
By 1960, Rosenquist had stopped painting commercial advertisements and rented a small studio space in Lower Manhattan where his neighbors included artists Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman. During this period, Rosenquist, working against the prevailing tide of Abstract Expressionism, developed his own brand of New Realism —a style soon to be called Pop art. Here the artist’s early training as a sign painter emerged in his continued use of advertising imagery, commercial colors, and the large scale of his work.
This exhibition features for the first time some of the artist’s earliest abstractions made after his arrival in New York in 1955, including colorful and intimate oils on paper, and dynamic charcoal drawings (all Untitled from 1956–57). Rosenquist cites the painting Zone (1960–61) as a breakthrough in his early career, distinguishable from his earlier abstract experimentations as well as the dominant art movement Abstract Expressionism. Using a minimal grisaille palette, the painting depicts a woman’s head and hands (appropriated from a magazine advertisement for hand cream) beside a close-up view of a glistening tomato. Zone is among the first to utilize the jarring shifts in scale and content for which the artist is known. In 1962, he had his first solo exhibition at the Green Gallery in New York, and was subsequently included in virtually every groundbreaking group exhibition that established Pop art as a movement in the 1960s.
President Elect (1960-61/1964) is among the highlights of this exhibition. This iconic work includes a looming portrait of John F. Kennedy borrowed from a 1960 presidential campaign poster. Countering this portrait with images of middle-class wealth and consumerism Rosenquist asks, "Here is this new guy who wants to be President of the United States —what is he offering us?"
Along with the final painting, the preparatory collage for President Elect is also on view. A large number of Rosenquist’s collages —now considered works of art in their own right— are being exhibited publicly for the first time in this retrospective. These works lend new insight into the artist’s methods by revealing source materials for his paintings and illuminating his creative process. Exhibiting Rosenquist’s work in a variety of mediums (the Guggenheim installation also includes an in-depth look at his drawings and prints) allows viewers to consider the full complexity of his aesthetic and ideological concerns.
Another powerful reflection of the cultural climate is Industrial Cottage (1977). The painting comments on the close quarters we often share with heavy industry in modern America, and when referring to the work, Rosenquist has posed the question, "Is this what makes America great?" By inverting the phrase "cottage industry" (a small-scale business often carried on at home by family members), Rosenquist points to the poor urban planning that locates industrial parks next to public parks and the encroachment of machine-age technologies on residential neighborhoods.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Rosenquist began an ongoing series inspired by the vibrant flora around his Florida studio, painting the flowers of this tropical climate in all their bravura and delicacy. In such paintings as Nasturtium Salad (1984) and Passion Flowers (1990), lush depictions of plant life are interspersed with the faces of women. The precise markings of this human interference allude to mechanical and technological progress that, like the images, is often at odds with nature. Rosenquist’s environmentally conscious perspective is also revealed in his Water Planet series of the late 1980s, including Welcome to the Water Planet (1987). The artist describes these lusciously painted floral and aquatic works as "ecological and political paintings" that address the fragility of life on earth.
Rosenquist’s visually complex narratives depict specific events, thoughts, or actions through a collage technique. The obvious brashness of these often salacious images —proffered in the slick manner of advertising— are eye-catching, but the combinations undercut the typical intentions of commercialism and instead suggest more subtle investigations into human interaction and contemporary living. These inventive works form cohesive narratives in which dissonant objects combine to form resonant commentary.
The artist’s early career as a billboard painter continues to influence the scale of his works, as in the monumental The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997–98), a three-painting suite commissioned for the Deutsche Guggenheim. With imagery that includes the Ruhr valley and the colors of the German flag, it captures the country at a specific moment in history and refers to the interdependent nature of the global economy. The Swimmer in the Econo-mist, as with much of Rosenquist’s work, poignantly registers social and political concerns while reflecting on the dynamics of modern capitalist culture.
Throughout his career, Rosenquist has expressed a curiosity about the cosmos, technology, and scientific theory. This fascination is present in Flamingo Capsule (1970), which commemorates the U.S. space program and the three astronauts who died in a 1967 flash fire during a training session for the flight of Apollo I. It continues through his colorful and dynamic Speed of Light series, including The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light (2000) installed in gallery 208. Drawing on Einstein’s theory of relativity —in which a stationary spectator sees an event or fixed point differently from a spectator traveling at the speed of light— The Stowaway addresses the limited "vision" available to the viewer of the artwork. Rosenquist’s visual references are personal and mysterious, as are the associations of each visitor, therefore each reading of the work is unique.
The exhibition is installed both chronologically and thematically throughout the galleries on the 2nd floor of the museum. The classical galleries (205, 206, and 207) focus on his early work from the 1960s, where his paintings are shown alongside the stunning early collages and works on paper. The exhibition continues in gallery 209, with paintings and sculpture from the 1970s and 1980s. Galleries 202 and 203 explore Rosenquist´s Flowers, Guns and Dolls painting series of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a thematic selection of work from the past 30 years dealing with technology, space, and the cosmos. Gallery 208 culminates with two of the artist’s 17´x 46´ billboard-sized works: Star Thief (1980) and The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light (2000). Rounding off the selection is Rosenquist´s three-painting-suite The Swimmer in the Econo-mist, part of the Permanent Collection Pop Art presentation installed in gallery 104 on the 1st floor of the Museum; the exhibition places James Rosenquist’s work in an historical context (the painting serves as a bridge between these concurrent and related exhibitions). A selection of the drawings and collage studies for The Swimmer in the Econo-mist are featured in gallery 204, overlooking the installation of the three-painting-suite on the floor below and offering a stellar perspective of the final product.
Through his unique brand of imagery, Rosenquist has addressed modern issues and current events, registered antiwar statements, and voiced concern over the social, political, economic, and environmental fate of the planet. The exhibition highlights Rosenquist’s achievements in painting and sculpture and provides an in-depth look at his work as a draftsman, collagist, and printmaker. James Rosenquist: A Retrospective encompasses the full breadth of this artist’s remarkable achievement, while capturing his practice of working simultaneously in diverse mediums.