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James Rosenquist

By Peter Saul

I first saw the paintings of James Rosenquist at the gallery Sorrabend, Paris, France, in 1962. Maybe it was 1961 or ’63, difficult to remember exactly because it was a while ago. Pop art from New York had been known about, publicly, in magazines and newspapers for a few months—basically two painters, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist were it. Warhol had not appeared yet. Anyway, two paintings by Rosenquist were there to be seen and like many viewers I was anxious to see what Rosenquist’s Pop Art really looked like.

What a difference! The normal art of Paris in the early ’60s was a subtle thing—some gray paint artfully arranged but not actually of any interest to look at. Rosenquist’s two pictures, in contrast, look just like normal American commercial art. Life Magazine circa 1950 or driving along the highway and you see a signboard advertising a giant pair of shoes–very realistically painted by some skilled but completely unknown artist. How did this happen? Was it a capitalist plot, which would probably be first in the minds of the leftist people of Paris? No, actually. How was the fine art of 1960 replaced by American commercial advertising? Not only in Paris but at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, supposed hangout of the world’s most intelligent art viewers. How could this happen? To find out the answer to this question, or at least a large part of the question, one needed to wait until 2009 when Rosenquist published his life story, Painting Below Zero. I recommend it to anyone who needs to know how Rosenquist dealt with the art world (very straightforwardly, actually). Quite an honest portrayal. It turns out you need to be not only talented (meaning you can move the brush around), but also persuasive enough when you speak that important viewers believe in you. Since then, modern art has made itself well known as a verbal thing. Rosenquist, with his background in actual commercial signboard painting and fresh outlook on the art world was perfect for the moment. He continued painting for his whole life, and you might cynically say that he transformed what could be considered a fine arts type trick to gain momentary attention into some paintings that are very beautiful and got better and better looking as time passed. My favorites are the dolls wrapped in plastic. From the 1960s onward, James Rosenquist had a very satisfying career in the art world with much appreciation from critics and collectors. His really big painting titled F-111, ten feet high, almost ninety feet long, was seen as a protest against atomic war or Vietnam when it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. Rosenquist’s career in art amounts to many pages of dates and places in all the world’s art capitals, both museums and galleries. Unfortunately, I’m an artist myself and completely unskilled at boiling down this dense matter into two minutes of talk. Consequently I will just mention, from glancing at one paragraph, he had a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa in 1968, the Whitney in 1972, and Denver Museum in 1985. Another paragraph describes gallery shows at Haunch of Venison, London, in 2006; Acquavella, New York, in 2012; Ropac in Paris and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Rosenquist was well appreciated.

In the years since 1960, painting has gradually returned to normal, and the initial shock of pop art is long past. Every 10 or 15 years painting has been observed to be dead or dying by profoundly well-educated viewers. So what does that mean for the future of James Rosenquist’s paintings? Well, nothing of course. He enjoyed painting the pictures and the pictures are there.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2018.

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