James Rosenquist: A Retrospective
Menil Collection and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Catherine D. Anspon
In the pantheon of Pop Art, James Rosenquist is arguably one of the big three. Alongside Warhol and Lichtenstein, his accomplishments define the movement, and from the vantage point of forty years, loom increasingly large on the art-historical horizon.
Even after the heyday of Pop Art’s emergence during the 1960s, his art grew and metamorphosed, making bold socio-political and scientific statements, as well as shaping a younger generation of American painters. For all these reasons, his recent dual Houston museum mountings were one of the most pivotal and inspiring exhibitions of Texas’ spring/summer season.
The forty-year retrospective, the first survey of Rosenquist’s work in all media since 1972, was chronologically divided between early offerings (1956 to 1969, one painting from 1999) at the Menil and those from 1970 through 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Co-organized by Walter Hopps of the Menil and Guggenheim, and Sarah Bancroft of the Guggenheim, the exhibition will soon travel to New York’s Guggenheim (October 2003-January 2004), before heading to the Guggenheim Bilbao (July-October 2004).
As the Menil zoomed in on early works, the tone was innocent and elegiac, a mirror of the Golden Age of the 1960s. One of the most interesting inclusions was Astor Victoria from 1959, in which a big red E takes over the picture plane. This painting signaled the “Ah ha!” moment for Rosenquist, when he started to move from abstract expressionism to his signature signage.
James Rosenquist, President Elect, 1960–61/1964
Oil on Masonite
7 feet 5 3/4 inches x 12 feet
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
The early works possess a clarity, an almost cinematic read, obviously inspired by Rosenquist’s pre-1960s stint as a commercial billboard painter. A poignant canvas, President Elect (1960-61, 1964), exhibited alongside its collage, featured the visage of a charismatic President Kennedy juxtaposed with devil’s food cake and an American automobile from the period. The viewer deciphers the cake as a stand-in for a tempting female, while the handsome president has vampire-like incisors, which lend a decided air of disquietude to the canvas. The car also forebodes JFK’s ill-fated Dallas motorcade.
While the classic F-111 (1964-65) did not travel, its collage did, providing insights into the creation of one of the most monumental paintings of all time. F-111 stands as a succinct and moving statement of its era, a masterwork that can be seen as Rosenquist’s Guernica, a portrait of a feel good, buoyant time whose demise was just over the horizon. Even the artist’s use of the image of a Firestone tire seems eerily prophetic decades later.
One of the most luscious canvases, Lanai from 1964, combined a palette of cobalt blues, flamingo pink and sunny orange, with consumer-fueled imagery of cling peaches juxtaposed with a nude woman peering over a pool and an upside down Pontiac thrusting through the center of the composition. The Menil also indicated the playful, experimental side of the artist, with works such as Nomad (1963) revealing Rosenquist adding unexpected sculptural elements to his paintings (in this case, a plastic bag dripping paint like a pastry tube).
The artist’s acumen with visual language and interests in astronomy, botany, the space program, physics and global politics were highlighted in the MFAH’s exhibit of Rosenquist’s ensuing three decades. The stars at that venue were arguably the exhibit’s most monumental, a trio of canvases installed in the sweeping space of Cullinan Hall: Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil (1988), The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light (2000) and Joystick (2002).
James Rosenquist, Welcome to the Wate Planet IV (Close Lightning), 1988
Oil on canvas
8 x 7 feet
Art Enterprises, Limited Chicago
Also intriguingly presented at the MFAH was the artist’s technique of fractured reality, his “crosshatched” paintings from the early 1980s through the early 1990s. In this series, Rosenquist intersperses luxuriant tropical foliage, inter-slicing it via razor-sharp diagonals with close-ups of female features. Welcome to the Water Planet IV (Close Lightning) from 1988 suggests a femme fatale lurking in the tropical undergrowth, no doubt evidence of Rosenquist’s fascination with Florida, where he has lived part-time and worked since 1976.
A multi-panel masterwork, The Swimmer in the Econo-Mist, 1997-98, shows Rosenquist’s ongoing concern with the machinations of world politics, interspersing visuals from Guernica with type from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box. While the latest works, from the Speed of Light series, lack the iconic, recognizable images of his pre-2000 creations—they feel more like life observed through fun house mirrors—who can quibble with a master who pushed the limits of big paintings for decades, and makes today’s penchant for oversized photos and gigantic canvases appear puny compared to a real Rosenquist.