In 1961, James Rosenquist decided to quit his job as a billboard painter in New York. It was time to focus exclusively on his art, he decided. Also, two of his colleagues had recently been killed after falling while on a job, as Judith E. Stein writes in her recent biography of the dealer Dick Bellamy. He got to work, and one year later, Rosenquist presented bright, brilliant figurative paintings that channeled the frenetic energy of postwar American economic expansionism at Bellamy’s Green Gallery on 57th Street, beginning a high-flying career as a cornerstone of Pop art, and postwar art as a whole, that ended yesterday, with his death at the age of 83.
Like his compatriots Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein, Rosenquist mined popular-culture imagery, collaging it in ingenious fashion in large-scale paintings that offer up large, precisely rendered lipstick tubes, smiling, golden-haired women, and gleaming lightbulbs. Everything is new and clean and perfectly sterile in his pictures. The people and objects aim to please, ready to be purchased, enjoyed, used.
Rosenquist’s paintings can seem to be the most wholeheartedly affirmative of any made by the Pop artists, but at their best they harbor intense psychological turmoil and doubt just beneath their smooth surfaces. They plumb the hollowness at the core of American prosperity. In Sitting Around Screaming (1962), a painting of a woman’s crossed legs and a hanging lamp is coming apart at its center, barely revealing a woman’s face at a 90-degree angle, as if some sinister secret is being revealed. In Marilyn Monroe, I (1962), the sex symbol’s face is fractured and rotated in different rectangles, in some places of drained of color, as if being dissected by various viewers or dispersed through media channels.
But even if Rosenquist had painted only his most famous work—F-111 (1964–65)—the North Dakota-born artist would have secured a prominent place in the history books. Across 23 panels that are each about 45-inches long he placed a fighter jet, a plate of spaghetti, and a grinning white woman underneath a Space Age hairdryer, an overview of the state of culture in the United States as defined by the military-industrial complex, mass production, and a proud reveling in newfound purchasing power. The work was unveiled at the Castelli Gallery in 1965 and eventually made its way to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which showed it in a room of its own in its permanent collection last year.
The conventional wisdom has long held that Rosenquist’s work stagnated later in his career as he fell into a comfortable rhythm, repeating his early breakthroughs with less zest, but his influence has remained profound. One can sense bits of Rosenquist in the jarring painted collages of David Salle, who added a touch of dark eroticism into the mix, as well as the ambitious paintings of Jeff Koons, who amps up the intricacy of the imagery to an almost comical degree while at the same time gleefully draining meaning from the conceit.
However, Rosenquist’s later works can sometimes generate sparks, as when he carefully overlays disparate images, dividing the canvases by means of razor-sharp, almost-hair-tooth slices so that the mind struggles and often fails to assemble the competing pictures. These are paintings that come at the eye full throttle, intent on overwhelming. They trip you up.
Rosenquist arrived in New York in 1955 from studying at the University of Minnesota, in the city where he had grown up, and his early style was indebted to the Abstract Expressionists, an interest pushed along by boozy evenings at the Cedar Tavern, the storied hangout of Pollock, Rothko, and others.
In his autobiography with David Dalton, Painting Below Zero, Rosenquist writes about how, painting billboards in those years, he began to associate colors with specific things. He says, in a line also quoted by Stein, “My chromatic alphabet came from Franco-American spaghetti and Kentucky Bourbon.”
Spaghetti and bourbon: good, sturdy, unpretentious things, like Rosenquist’s own art, which exudes a craftsmanship that is exacting but never fussy, that is as satisfying and American as a new paint job on a vintage car or lipstick freshly applied to lips. Darkness is always just out of sight in this world. It will arrive with the press of a button, a phone call, or the turn of the steering wheel, we know. But right now everything is just fine. We are coasting.