One of the most iconic works of postwar American art, F-111 (1965) has recently been reinstalled at the Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first paintings regarded as a form of protest against the Vietnam War and is perhaps James Rosenquist’s masterpiece. Comprising 23 panels, the 86-foot-long composition begun in 1964 caused a sensation when it debuted in 1965 at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery, then located at 4 E. 77th St. The painting, which covers four walls, contains a succession of photo-based images, including a fighter plane, a cherubic child under a hair dryer, the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast and military insignia, which together constitute a potent critique of American militarism.
New and challenging at the time, the work’s abrupt shifts in scale, collagelike fragmented imagery and heightened palette became attributes of Rosenquist’s subsequent work and his unique brand of Pop art. F-111 has appeared in numerous exhibitions over the years and was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1996. The painting, along with a selection of studies, is on view outside the entrance to the museum’s fourth floor Painting and Sculpture galleries. On view through July 30, F-111 is presented as it was first exhibited at Castelli, with its many pieces arranged to cover four walls of a room.
EBONY What was your initial reaction to seeing F-111 newly installed?
ROSENQUIST I was thinking about how it was painted 47 years ago. And if someone showed a work at MoMA in 1965 that had been completed 47 years before that, think of all of the things that happened since it was made—World Wars I and II, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and a lot more. I don’t know if all that much has happened since 1965, but maybe it has.
EBONY I recently reread the essay that Henry Geldzhaler wrote about F-111 in 1968, just a few years after you completed it. He said that while the work made a powerful impression at the time, he wondered if it would have a lasting impact. Now reinstalled at MoMA, it clearly has. It seems as strong and relevant as ever. How did the painting come about?
ROSENQUIST After World War II, President Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex and its power and influence. His comments were the impetus for the painting. I didn’t like the idea that U.S. taxpayer money was being used to develop things like the B-36 bomber. These fighter planes cost millions of dollars to make and only a few of them were ever used. So the F-111 fighter bomber was in my mind, and the collusion of the Vietnam war machine, consumerism, advertising and the media. A whole lot of ideas culminated in the painting.
EBONY At the time, it was regarded by some critics as a new form of protest. Did you consider yourself an activist? You were arrested once for protesting the Vietnam War.
ROSENQUIST That was a little later. I went down to Washington, D.C. for an antiwar protest. It was a great experience. I’ll never forget it. A big crowd of us were lying down on the floor of the Senate lobby. Just by chance, my floor neighbor was Benjamin Spock. “James,” Dr. Spock said, “hold your arms close to your body in case they kick you!” We got to chatting about all kinds of things. I remember he mentioned that he supported the gays in San Francisco. He said, “I never met a person who was coerced into being gay; that’s just how they come out of the womb.”
Young people don’t realize how tumultuous the 1960s really were. It was a crazy time. An art critic once burned a U.S. flag on my front lawn. I won’t say who it was. There were the hippies and communes who believed that we don’t need any kind of government. They thought that we could be ethical and take care of ourselves and other people, and there’s really no need for government.
EBONY F-111 was one of the first contemporary paintings presented in the form of an installation that surrounds the viewer on all sides, as it appears now at MoMA. But over the years it has been shown in a number of configurations—with all of the panels lined up on one wall or, on another occasion, shown on two walls. Which do you prefer?
ROSENQUIST Those other ways of displaying it were never at my suggestion. The installation at MoMA is the way it was originally shown at Leo Castelli. I painted it to cover all four walls of a specific room in the gallery. That open area in one corner, for instance, was to be able to get to the radiators.
EBONY You used many different techniques in the painting.
ROSENQUIST I tried all sorts of things: florescent paint, sparkle dust and paint used for jukeboxes. I did one area with Italian paint rollers used to make textured wall patterns. I visited the collector Richard Brown Baker one day and saw these paint rollers in the lobby of his apartment. In F-111, I intended the rolled-on pattern to be a metaphor for radioactive fallout, or a protest against polluting the air in any way. The air in New York City is much better now, but if you were around in the ’60s, the air quality was awful. There was a lot of sulfur in the air. You had to close your windows at night. So I was reacting to that.
EBONY The painting still looks bright and fresh. Have you reworked it? I read somewhere—maybe it was in your autobiography [Painting Below Zero, 2009]—that you touched it up when it was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art some years ago.
ROSENQUIST That was just a minor touch-up. Nothing much at all. They wanted to make sure it was perfect when it left the Met after the show. In fact, now some of the Day-Glo red areas are fading. But there is such a lot of under-painting that even if the florescent colors on the surface fade, the image will still be strong.
EBONY There’s something cinematic about the work, maybe in its epic scope and in the way you juxtaposed the imagery as a kind of montage. It reminds me of the Technicolor Cinemascope spectacles of the 1960s. Were you thinking in terms of film when you were developing the composition?
ROSENQUIST No, not at all. My background is as a billboard painter. I started out making giant murals, advertising signs. I was thinking about the images in F-111 having that kind of impact.