For me, things have to be life-size or larger. I believe it is possible to bring something so close that you can see through it, so it comes to you right off the wall. I like to bring things into unexpected immediacy—as if someone thrust something right next to your face—a beer bottle or his shirt cuff—and said, “How do you like it?”
—James Rosenquist, 1965
James Rosenquist, a key figure in the Pop art movement, passed away on March 31, 2017 at age 83. Rosenquist was known for his large-scale, vivid, and colorful paintings that combined and cropped imagery that reflected the excesses of postwar consumer America—movie stars, automobiles, domestic objects, and food items.
Like his peer, Ed Ruscha, who brought the techniques of layout, illustration, and lettering with him into painting, or Andy Warhol, who was a successful commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s, Rosenquist similarly incorporated commercial techniques into his artistic practice. The artist was deeply influenced by his time working as a sign and billboard painter in the 1950s, translating the size, format, and mass-recognized imagery of billboards onto his canvases. Asserting larger-than-life images, Rosenquist transgressed categories and pushed the boundaries that defined what art could be and how it could be experienced.
Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and lived in various cities in Minnesota and Ohio in his early childhood until his family settled in Minneapolis in 1944. In junior high school, Rosenquist studied art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and in 1952 he enrolled in the studio art program at the University of Minnesota. During the summer break of 1953 Rosenquist worked for a contractor painting gas station signs, storage tanks, and grain silos, before he left college to pursue his artistic career in New York in 1955. In order to support himself in the big city, where he was studying at the Art Students League, Rosenquist painted billboards in 1957 to 1960—advertisements for movies, liquor, and soft drinks—and was briefly employed by Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation, painting some of the largest billboards in the world.
Rosenquist began his early artistic career in Minneapolis, and over the course of his life presented his work at the Walker Art Center on numerous occasions. While his early work was primarily rooted in Abstract Expressionism—evident in his 1957 painting, Passing Before the Horizon that was included in the 1958 Biennial: Paintings, Prints, Sculpture at the Walker Art Center—in 1960 he began to work with existing commercial imagery, and soon adopted his signature billboard-inspired, mural-scaled paintings. In 1964 Rosenquist started making the painting for which he is perhaps best know, the monumental F-111. At an astounding 86 feet in length, with panels that occupy multiple successive walls, the painting’s central subject is an F-111 bomber plane, which was being developed at the time for use in the Vietnam War. The plane collides with visual imagery ranging from food to consumer items to war references, drawing links between the Vietnam War, consumerism, the media, and advertising.
After F-111 Rosenquist created a series of five large-scale paintings with winged, Mylar side panels that enabled the paintings to take up three-dimensional space. The Mylar panels serve to extend each painting by reflecting it, refuting the finality of its outer edges. As early as 1963, Rosenquist was concerned with “purging myself of devices that would put boundaries on my pictures.” One of these works—a 1970 painting in the Walker permanent collection, Area Code—presents fragmented images of a bird’s wings and telephone wires sharply severed, perhaps indicating the artist’s interest in mass media and communication.
Rosenquist was also an accomplished printmaker. Resistant to the medium at first because of the difficulty of translating the splintered compositions of his paintings into print form, Rosenquist eventually began working with Kenneth Tyler, of the renowned Tyler Graphics Ltd., who introduced him to paper pulp—a medium that offered a surface similar to that of painting. Rosenquist explained to Tyler that he wanted to make prints as big as paintings, and to work in a spontaneous manner akin to painting, and Tyler responded, “OK, I’ll make the biggest pieces of handmade paper you’ve ever seen.” Together the pair made some of the most boundary-pushing prints of Rosenquist’s career. A repository of the archives of Tyler Graphics, the Walker holds many of Rosenquist’s works on paper, including his most ambitious prints from the series Welcome to the Water Planet (1989–1990). Made at an unprecedented scale—so large that the Walker had to build new drawers to accommodate their size—the prints were inspired by the vegetation of Florida, where Rosenquist had a studio. The works were scaled-up versions of smaller collages, featuring a splicing technique that meshed foreground with disparate background imagery. The series reflected the artist’s disquiet with what was happening to the earth.
Rosenquist continued to experiment with printmaking techniques, and in 1993 the Walker hosted a retrospective of his editions, James Rosenquist: Time Dust|The Complete Graphics, organized by the University Art Museum at California State University. The survey of more than 100 prints examined the artist’s graphic production from his groundbreaking Pop images to the mural-sized handmade paper and lithographic collage prints. Rosenquist was a prolific image maker, undeterred even after his Florida studio burned in 2009. He was described as having a child’s energy, and he liked to move around and dance. “Let’s boogey” was one of his favorite expressions, meaning “Let’s go.” To Rosenquist, who worked ever since he could remember, movement implied work. Rosenquist was a devotee of the ever-moving, the infinite, the larger-than-life. And while the scale of his work brought immediacy to the subject, he stated, “The reason for bigness isn’t largeness. It’s to be engulfed by peripheral vision; it questions the self and questions self-consciousness.”