WEBEXCLUSIVE

James Rosenquist: His American Life

ACQUAVELLA GALLERIES | OCTOBER 25 – DECEMBER 7, 2018

James Rosenquist, The Light That Won’t Fail I, 1961. Oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 96 1/4 inches. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966. Photo: Cathy Carver. © Estate of James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York.

These seventeen paintings, early 1960s to early 1980s, each so clearly marked by Rosenquist’s experience painting billboards, are pop beyond pop. Riveting indeed and way beyond, each sporting flash points apparently unconnected. “I don’t do anecdote, I accumulate experiences,” says Rosenquist. Right on, and if we think of each anecdote as telling its own story, these works are surely not that. They are accumulations, which accumulate our own experience for we remain fascinated by exactly what is being tied together and with what kind of tie. 

Musing on this, I was gazing at the immense 1980 work Untitled (Between Mind and Pointer), which contains everything kitchen-like: a broken eggshell and, to the right of this remaining eggshell, a bowl displays two egg yolks and surrounding whites, with a bit of bubble to persuade us. Some sort of gadget does its signaling or pointing here and there. Hovering above all this, in the upper right-hand corner, a white short-sleeved shirt shows its pocket as if we might want to place all these disparate elements therein. 

James Rosenquist, Untitled (Between Mind and Pointer), 1980. Oil on canvas, 78 x 66 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Philip Johnson, 1998. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. © Estate of James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York.

What grabbed me most were the preparatory studies showing what magazine articles and advertisements were used as the sources for the final work. Perfect example: the 1961 composition The Light that Won’t Fail I, in which half of a vapid female face stares up at a comb which expands across the top of the painting like a ceiling, while in the lower right corner a shady figment hovers in a smoky mist. This is based on an ad shown in a newspaper extract about Philip Morris cigarettes, and in the open newspaper, this shadowy figure is smoking a cigarette illustrating the text: “Don’t test one brand alone [. . .] compare them all. Try this test. Take a Philip Morris and any other cigarette. We say [. . .] compare Philip Morris [. . .] match [. . .] judge.” The painterly experience undoes the comparison and simply leaves the figure in shadow, forgetting the smoking action. What remains is the feeling of the ad and the brand’s mantra: this smoke will work, no matter the shadow. 

Contributor

Mary Ann Caws

MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.

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