James Rosenquist: Potent POP

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Heather James presents an intimate view into select works by the Pop pioneer, James Rosenquist. Rosenquist’s large-scale canvases feature collaged images culled from advertising and commercial culture.

Trained as a billboard painter, Rosenquist used this experience to create massive canvases that themselves look like the advertisements we encounter in everyday life. The canvases gleam in their glossiness and fast-paced nature, the juxtaposition of disparate images hinting at larger socio-political observations. The exhibition covers three decades of work from the 1960s to the 1980s and charts the change in the artist’s process and style. 

“I’m the one who gave steroids to Pop Art.” – James Rosenquist

The show opens with a personal drawing, laying out Rosenquist’s process from his handwritten notes to cultural images he planned to use. In the work shows the different considerations from color to shape to composition and is capped off with his signature and date in the lower right.

Moving into the 1970s, the exhibition meditates on one of Rosenquist’s most personal works, an homage and tribute to his close friend and fellow artist, Gordon Matta-Clark. Matta-Clark was a conceptual artist and the son of Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta-Clark. For more on his father, visit our virtual exhibition, Following Surrealism: Conceived with Fire. Gordon Matta-Clark was part of the New York Downtown scene along with Trisha Brown, Laurie Anderson, Yvonne Rainer, Phillip Glass, and more. He died tragically at the age of 35 from pancreatic cancer. This painting is a moving tribute, the title an allusion to his short life and untimely death.

Rosenquist includes in the work itself a host of symbols dedicated to his friend. There is the 35 referencing his age and the wire as if it was cutting into the space much as Matta-Clark would cut into abandoned buildings to create his work. Most poignantly the center of the work features a pair of scissors, at once a symbol of fate and cutting the thread of life but also to one of the most famous works by his close friend. “Hair” by Matta-Clark featured the artist shearing his hair after a year of growth and archiving his tresses. The work combines performance, body art, and conceptual art in a deeply intimate act. Rosenquist deftly captures this in the painting overlaying his style of collage to create layers of meaning.

The show concludes in the 1980s. Although Pop art is most associated with mid-century America, the 80s saw a resurgence led by his fellow Pop artist Andy Warhol. An emboldened American society look to flex new priorities of consumerism and corporate interest with bravado. This was a perfect intersection for Pop Artists to examine the complexities involved. And Rosenquist was happy to oblige by splicing his trademark collages to emphasize his points.

“Samba School” is a complex painting in which incongruent images are literally fragmented and interwoven into each other, forcing the viewer to confront the aesthetic quality of the canvas and the conceptual relationship between disjointed pictures. The work was featured in Oliver Stone’s film, “Wall Street”, which captured the cultural zeitgeist of the decade and is no coincidence that the work does as well in its quick pace flashes and gloss featuring beautiful women and beautiful objects.

But gloss of the sake of gloss was not Rosenquist’s aim. Rather, it was with the quintessential 80s irony as he turned to examine the relationship between humanity, consumerism, and the environment. During the 1980s and into the 90s, Rosenquist was deeply concerned with the environment and is apparent in “Television or the Cat’s Cradle Supports Electronic Picture” and “Sky Hole (from Welcome to the Water Planet)”.

The works focus on tropical flora juxtaposed against the cosmos. The former seems also to suggest a connection to the burgeoning presence of electronics and the environment, a delicate balance as in the children’s game of cat’s cradle. Although static, the angular disintegration and rejoining gives us the impression of images flashing at high speed as if channel surfing, driving down a highway of billboards, or even jumping from website to website.

As you move through time in the exhibition, the ambition and the complexity abounds in each work as Rosenquist adapts his approach to new concerns and focus but the core of the artist – mainstream consumer culture and large scale paintings reminiscent of billboards – remains allowing us a guide post in which to dive into his paintings.