James Rosenquist had a mind for the unnatural colors of consumer products—the alien-looking green of mass-made coffee mugs, the metallic grey of fresh Fords, and, in particular, the red-orange that could only be found in spaghetti sauce. “I can’t forget it,” he told Gene R. Swenson in an interview that appeared in the February 1964 issue of ARTnews. Maybe it isn’t surprising that critics derided Rosenquist’s work, saying that his surrealist assemblages of imagery taken from advertisements looked too much like commercials themselves. Maybe it’s even less surprising that Rosenquist didn’t care. “I treat the billboard image as it is, so apart from nature,” he told Swenson. “I paint it as a reproduction of other things; I try to get as far away from nature as possible.”
Rosenquist, who died this past Friday at age 83, left behind a body of work that has continued to inspire today’s artists, from David Salle to Jamian Juliano-Villani. And yet, even after a Guggenheim Museum retrospective, there’s something indefinable about the Pop artist’s work. Perhaps it’s best to let Rosenquist speak for himself. Reprinted below is his 1964 interview with Swenson, excerpted from an ongoing series of artist interviews called “What Is Pop Art?” —Alex Greenberger
“What Is Pop Art?”
Interview by Gene R. Swenson
I think critics are hot blooded. They don’t take very much time to analyze what’s in the painting . . .
O.K., the critics can say [that Pop artists accept the mechanization of the soul]. I think it’s very enlightening that if we do, we realize it instead of protesting too much. It hasn’t been my reason. I have some reasons for using commercial images that these probably haven’t thought about. If I use anonymous images—it’s true my images have not been hot blooded images—they’ve been anonymous images of recent history. In 1960 and 1961 I painted the front of a 1950 Ford. I felt it was anonymous image. I wasn’t angry about that, and it wasn’t a nostalgic image either. Just an image. 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 wasn’t 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. The images are like no-images. There is a freedom there. If it were abstract, people might make it into something. If you paint Franco-American spaghetti, they won’t make a crucifixion out of it, and also who could be nostalgic about canned spaghetti? They’ll bring their reactions but, probably, they won’t have as many irrelevant ones . . .
The images are now, already, on the canvas and the time I painted it is on the canvas. That will always be seen. That time span, people will look at it and say, “why did he paint a ’50 Ford in 1960, why didn’t he paint a ’60 Ford?” That relationship is one of the important things we have as painters. The immediacy may be lost in a hundred years, but don’t forget that by that time it will be like collecting a stamp; this thing that might have ivy growing around it. If it bothers to stand up—I don’t know—it will belong to a stamp collector, it will have nostalgia then. But still that time will mean something . . .
I have a feeling, as soon as I do something, or as I do something, nature comes along and lays some dust on it. There’s a relationship between nature—nature’s nature—and time, the day and the hour and the minute. If you do an iron sculpture, in time it becomes rusty, it gains a patina and that patina can only get to be beautiful. A painter searches for a brutality that hasn’t been assimilated by nature. I believe there is a heavy hand of nature on the artist. My studio floor could be, some people would say that is part of me and part of my painting because that is the way I arranged it, the way things are. But it’s not, because it’s an accidental arrangement; it is nature, like flowers or other things . . .
[Paint and paint quality] are natural things before you touch them, before they’re arranged. As times goes by the brutality of what art is, the idea of what art can be, changes; different feelings about things become at home, become accepted, natural . . . [Brutality is] a new vision or method to express something, its value geared right to the present time . . .
When I was a student, I explored paint quality. Then I started working, doing commercial painting and I got all of the paint quality I ever wanted. I had paint running down my armpits. I kept looking at everything I was doing—a wall, a gasoline tank, I kept looking to see what happened, looking at the rusty surface, at the nature, at changing color. I’ve seen a lot of different ways paint takes form and what it does, and what excited me and what didn’t. After some Abstract-Expressionist painting I did then, I felt I had to slice through all of that, because I had a lot of residue, things I didn’t want. I thought that I would be a stronger painter if I made most of my decisions before I approached the canvas; that way I hoped for a vision that would be more simple and direct. I don’t know what the rules for Abstract-Expressionism are, but I think one is that you make a connection with the canvas and then you discover; that’s what you paint—and eliminate what you don’t want. I felt my canvases were jammed with stuff I didn’t want . . .
I’m amazed and excited and fascinated about the way things are thrust at us, the way this invisible screen that’s a couple of feet in front of our mind and our senses is attacked by radio and television and visual communications, through things larger than life, the impact of things thrown at us, at such a speed and with such a force that painting and communication through doing a painting now seem very old-fashioned . . .
I think we have a free society, and the action that goes on in this free society allows encroachments, as a commercial society. So I geared myself, like an advertiser or a large company, to this visual inflation myself, like an advertiser or a larger company, to this visual inflation—in commercial advertising which is one of the foundations of our society. I’m living in it, and it has such impact and excitement in its means of imagery. Painting is probably more exciting than advertising—so why shouldn’t be done with that power and gusto, with that impact. I see very few paintings with the impact that I’ve felt, that I feel and try to do in my work . . . My metaphor, if that is what you can call it, is my relations to the power of commercial advertising which is in turn related to our free society, the visual inflation which accompanies the money that produces box tops and space cadets . . .
When I use a combination of fragments of things, the fragments or objects or real things are caustic to one another, and the title is caustic to the fragments . . . The images are expendable, and the images are in the painting and therefore the painting is also expendable. I only hope for a colorful shoe-horn to get the person off, to turn him on to his own feelings . . .
The more we explore, the more we dig through, the more we learn the mystery there is. For instance, how can I justify myself, how can I make my mark, my “X” on the wall in my studio, or in my experience, when somebody is jumping in a rocket ship and exploring outer space? Like, he begins to explore space, the deeper he goes in space the more there is of nature, the more mystery there is. You may make a discovery, but you get to a certain point and that point opens up a whole new area that’s never been touched . . .
I treat the billboard image as it is, so apart from nature. I paint it as a reproduction of other things; I try to get as far away from nature as possible . . .
An empty canvas is full, as Bob [Rauschenberg] said. Things are always gorgeous and juicy—an empty canvas is—so I put something in it to dry it up. Just the canvas and paint—that would be nature. I see all this stuff [point to the texture of a canvas]—that’s a whole other school of painting. All that very beautiful canvas can be wonderful, but it’s another thing. The image—certainly it’s juicy, too—but it throws your mind to something else, into art. From having an empty canvas, you have a painted canvas. It may have more action; but the action is like a confrontation, like a blow that cancels out things. Then, too, somebody will ask, why do I want that image there? I don’t want that image, but it’s there. To put an image in, or a combination of images, is an attempt to make it at least not nature, cancel it from nature, wrest it away. Look at that fabric, there, the canvas, and the paint—those are like nature . . .
I learned a lot more about painting paint when I painted signs. I painted things from photos and I had quite a bit of freedom in the interpretation, but still, after I did it, it felt cold to me, it felt like I hadn’t done it, that it had been done by a machine. The photograph was a machine-produced image. I threw myself at it. I reproduced it as photographically and stark as I could. They’re still done the same way; I like to paint them as stark as I can . . .
I thought for a while I would like to use machine-made images, silk-screens, maybe. But by the time I could get them—I have specifics in my mind—it would take longer or as long, and it would be in a limited size, than if I did them as detached as I could by hand, in the detached method I learned as a commercial painter . . .
When I first started thinking like this, from my outdoor painting, painting commercial advertising, I would bring home colors that I liked, associations that I liked using my abstract painting, and I would remember specifics by saying this was a dirty bacon tan, this was a yellow T-shirt yellow, this was a Man-Tan suntan orange. I remember these like I was remember the alphabet, a specific color. So then I started painting Man-Tan orange and—I always remember Franco-American spaghetti orange, I can’t forget it—so I felt it as a remembrance of things, like a color chart, like learning an alphabet. Other people talk about painting nothing. You just can’t do it. I paint something as detached as I can and as well as I can; then I have one image, that’s it. But in a sense the image is expendable; I have to keep the image so that the thing doesn’t become an attempt at a grand illusion, an elegance . . .
If I use a lamp or a chair, that isn’t the subject, it isn’t the subject matter. The relationships may be the subject matter, the relationships of the fragments I do. The content will be something more, gained from the relationships. If I have three things, their relationship will be the subject matter; but the content will hopefully be fatter, balloon to more than the subject matter. One thing, though, the subject matter isn’t popular images, it isn’t that at all.