Top: “Lanai” (1964) Oil on canvas 62 x 88 in. / Bottom Left: “In the Red” (1962) Oil on canvas 66 ¼ x 78 ¼ in. Center: “Untitled” (Blue Sky) (1962) Oil on canvas 84 x 72 in. Right: Detail of “The Lines Were Deeply Etched on the Map of Her Face” (1962 ) Oil on canvas 66 x 78 in. – The Acquavella Gallery, NY “James Rosenquist: His American Life”.
“You met him? Oh really? And what was he like?” I inquired.
“He was an average guy.” insisted the security guard as I quietly inspected the treasure trove of paintings that lay before me one day before Thanksgiving. Tourists packed the KAWS exhibit next door in Disneyesque fashion but I was relieved to escape the crush of sight-seers in search of something more revealing. James Rosenquist may have appeared to take on an unassuming posture in real-life, but his stature as a visionary in the art world, looms large. Rosenquist’s creation of a fresh visual language encompassing collage techniques, slick surfaces and bold palette speak to this generation more now than ever. Acquavella’s stunning exhibit “James Rosenquist: His American Life”, curated by Judith Goldman, attests to this. The show runs through December 7th.
Scintillating Surfaces, Collage and the Repetition of Line
A preparatory sketch and collage on the second floor of Acquavella allows us a glimpse into his mental wiring.
Top: “Source and Preparatory Sketch for “Lanai”, (1964) Collage and mixed media on paper 5 ¼ x 12 ⅛ in.
Rosenquist used collage as a starting point to arrive at a finished product. Results were more immediate. We see this in “Win A New House This Christmas (Contest)” (1964), where a snippet of an advertisement is scaled-up to mammoth proportions. Indeed, Rosenquist used collage as a favorite device: “Almost every painting has a source collage…a document…he created snipping imagery from advertisements, women’s magazines or from photographs he had commissioned to use to scale-up on a massive billboard.” – Sarah Bowdencroft, The Rosenquist Foundation
Right: “Win a New House This Christmas (Contest)”, (1964) Oil on canvas 58 x 58 in. Rosenquist used collage as a starting point to arrive at a finished product. Results were more immediate. We see this in “Win A New House This Christmas (Contest)” (1964), where a snippet of an advertisement is scaled-up to mammoth proportions. Indeed, Rosenquist used collage as a favorite device:
He alluded to states of mind and evinced a classical approach to storytelling for a more rapid-fire shotgun style. His paintings fed the mind eye with quick associations. Snippets of generic images from everyday brought to life experiences. Paintings were never about the commodity but were “fragments…out of which he made pictures.” – Judith Goldman. The artist likened his approach to a “pointillist electrical computer…that picks out what it wants to pick out..” ( – from the video “Rosenquist James 1991 Master Edit”). Stockinged feet, diagonal car grills, a woman kneeling at a diving platform, unfurling rose petals, combs, denims and typewriter keys sit serenely juxtaposed.
Paintings in the gallery speak to each other; the black and white repetition of windows, a sort of bar code, at the base of “Win a New…” mimic the repetition of bristles in the comb of “The Light Won’t Won’t Fail, I” (1961) (above). We see Rosenquist’s’ fascination with line in “The Facet” (1978) (below) where black and white stacks of plates mimic the staccato pattern of crossed and looped fingers. The swirl of tea cup handles create a break. Neon pink windows jar the senses like a car wreck.
Never have egg yolks nor razor blades held such visual appeal as they do in “Untitled (Between Mind and Pointer)”, (1980). Surfaces glisten. The circular movement of egg yolks repeat themselves in the curved swirl of glass bowls and rounded appliances. Rosenquist’s compositions engage the eye with movement and seductive allure.
“I’m interested in contemporary vision…the flicker of chrome, reflections, rapid associations, quick flashes of light. Bing-bang! I don’t do anecdotes, I accumulate experiences.”
– James Rosenquist
Left: “The Facet”, (1978) Oil on canvas 90 ¼ x 90 1/4 in
Top: “The Light That Won’t Fail I” (1961) Oil on canvas 71 3/4 x 98 1/4 in. / “Untitled (Between Mind and Pointer)”, (1980) Oil on Canvas 78 x 66 in.
Left: “Source and Preparatory Sketch for House of Fire”, (1981) Magazine clippings and mixed media on paper 14 x 25 11/16 in. . Estate of James Rosenquist.
“Bing-Bang-Boom” as an action verb
“Bing Bang Boom” becomes an action verb in his choice of color. No doubt, Rosenquist’s’ background as a billboard painter play into his application of striking unabashed color. Glow-in-the dark crimsons, canary yellows, and lush violets brings to mind the hothouse hues of birds of paradise. He tempers these with gradations of grey allowing images to recede while others jump forward.
Lanai’s lush palette acts as a siren as do those in “Brighter Than the Sun” (1961). Indeed, Acquavella’s placement of the quieter “Source and Preparatory Sketch for House of Fire, 1981” act as a respite for senses.
The Sensual Brutality of Cocked Lipstick Barrels
The work “Brighter Than the Sun” (1961) creates an exciting visual language. It alludes to sensual texture. Was the top half culled from a Chevron sign? “Cage”, by its’ very size, expounds on pleasure, with the wet shape of pomegranate seeds and the unfurling of a flower. An overlapping green line connects a wash of denims and motorcycle parts while a continuous green line swurves and starts to zig-zag mimicking the jagged edge of a brown paper bag. Paintings reveal and conceal. The artist found inspiration in lipstick cases; Innocent as images in small media ads, they become a dynamic force when propelled in gargantuan size and shotgun unison. “Fahrenheit 1982” generates heat with a sharpened red wet manicure and the bullseye force of loaded fiery lipstick barrels.
When asked about the impact of his works, Rosenquist maintained that his paintings were never meant to comply with domestic surroundings:
10:58 to 12:58 ( – from the video “Rosenquist James 1991 Master Edit”).
James Rosenquist, like Picasso and Braque before him, factored in collage as a primary tool in his thinking process and took it so much further to incorporate massive scale and breathtaking color. We see these same techniques in the work of present-day artists such as Nathaniel Mary Quinn. Handiedan, Bustart, Jeff Koons, Alice Zuckerman and graffiti artists worldwide.
When asked in an interview, what he now considered “shocking” in the art world, he briefly replied: “I don’t know anymore”.
James Rosenquist in his Broome Street studio, New York, 1964
“But down among the reeds and rushes
A baby girl was found
Her eyes as clear as centuries
Her silky hair was brown”
– Paul Simon
Collage on Paper (2018) 6.5 x 7.5 in