A life flower, a painting, and a shrunken head
"Collage is still a very viable, contemporary idea and the same goes for film,
too." James Rosenquist, whose works are currently on exhibit in an
expansive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, talks to
Cheryl Kaplan about his influences, about Robert Rauschenberg, about the
labeling of artists by art historians, about his sense of color and
about his malted milk mixer.
arrive at the artist's Chambers Street studio. Out of the spill of New
York, an elevator door opens. It is operated by
James Rosenquist in person. Several Ferrari people have just left,
including Mr. Jean Todt, the Scuderia Ferrari Team Principal who is in
charge of Formula 1 racers like Michael Schumacher, and Mr. Luciano
Secchi, a kingpin of racing sponsorships. Rosenquist has arrived in New
York from Aripeka, Florida, where he lives and works most of the time.
We are speaking on the occasion of his major retrospective, which
traveled first to the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts in
Houston, Texas, and will next travel to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain
following its New York debut at the
Guggenheim in October.
Cheryl Kaplan: Your paintings often
accommodate several versions of an incident.
I use sections of people's faces seized with the shock that they might wake
up and be reincarnated into something else. Who knows what life and
death will bring - the real beginning of the painting Star Thief,
for instance, came from wondering what future generations would live
like. Would they live in a high-tech environment, which was very popular
years ago, or would they live in a meadow?
James Rosenquist: "F-111", 1964-65
The Museum of Modern Art, New
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alex L. Hillman and
Lillie P. Bliss
Bequest (both by exchange), 1996
Photo courtesy of James Rosenquist
Kaplan: In F-111, done between 1964-1965, the 51 aluminum panels
that make up the painting function like stills of a film. The vertical
section at the end has no image on it at all. The entire painting is 86
feet long -
Rosenquist: I used the aluminum panels in
F-111 for their reflection. Later, I used mirrorized Mylar for similar
reasons. If you moved around, the reflections would change.
Kaplan: Why did you use panels?
Rosenquist: I didn't
want to continue damaging huge paintings every time I had to move.
Kaplan: Your dad started a tourist camp in 1941 in Northern Minnesota. It
was near the railroad tracks. What was the relationship between his
failure at that business and the fact that you lived in one cabin, slept
in another, and ate dinner in a third cabin? I'm fascinated by this
early reference to separate places for each of your everyday activities.
Rosenquist: Guess what happened in 1941? The Japanese attacked Pearl
Harbor, and so the tourist business went to pieces.
Transitory or transitional places frequently appear in your work.
There's always a sense of something coming and going.
James Rosenquist: Collage for "F-111", 1964
Collection of the
Photo by George Holzer, courtesy of James Rosenquist
Rosenquist: This carries through my whole life. In 1942, we moved to
Minneapolis. My mother and father had both been pilots in 1931, and then
the Depression came along and that was the end of that. During the War,
starting in 1942, my father was an A+E inspector. He worked for
Northwest Airlines servicing WWII bombers at Wright-Patterson Field in
Dayton, Ohio. We moved around a lot, and my life was very nomadic.
Kaplan: Terms like collage and mural have been applied to your work going
back to the sixties -
the artist and critic Sidney Tillim once classified you as a Cubist. But
your practice of adding and subtracting feels structurally closer to
film editing, where transitions from one frame to the next appear as
dissolves, jump cuts, or replaced images.
Everyone thinks an artist does things according to art history, but
sometimes you develop your own art history. I was painting big signs in
Times Square and my job was to go to a desk and find various pieces of
material, like a tomato or a package of cigarettes, and take these
disparate sizes of imagery and blow them up into the right scale on a
sign board. That's how that structure came about.
James Rosenquist: Collage for
One Way Anywhere"; and "For
Collection of the artist
Photo by George
Holzer, courtesy of James Rosenquist
Certainly I like Cubism, I like the golden mean of the
Renaissance, I like anything that makes a dynamic picture. But my
experience came from that - so I'm not sure it's cinematic. I used to
paint a lot of movie advertisements, and I got a kick out of the
enlargement of the silver screen.
Kaplan: You're describing an editing or assembling
process that comes out of collage and is seen in film montage.
Rosenquist: Collage is a very contemporary medium. During WWII, when
I was a boy, I went into a museum and saw a show that had a live flower,
a painting, and a shrunken head. I said: what does that mean to me? This
combination was really peculiar. Well, these three disparate images may
have been a spark to some other thing in the mind. To me, collage is
still a very viable, contemporary idea and it goes that way in film,
too. It doesn't matter if they're filming a love scene or something
else, movie directors are concerned with making a dynamic picture.
That's something they know a lot about.
Kaplan: The jump
and the reconnection seem essential to your work. In what way did
"Combine" paintings interest you at the time?
Rosenquist: I've known
Rauschenberg for a long time [laughter], when he was sitting in a
chair in the rubble of Water Street, collecting stuff for his Combines.
I saw that happen. He was very bold, adventurous, and would do things
and decide what they were later, just to do something. I remember years
later, I was down in his studio in Captiva and we had a few drinks and
he thought he'd show me his new work and it was beautiful - but there
was this one thing with six bamboo poles leaning against a wall and tin
cans hanging down. I said: "Bobby? All this work is fantastic, but I
don't get this one. I've been looking at this work for two hours and I
still don't get it." And he said: "I guess you put things on a wall
before you know what they are, too!" He's very adventurous, good old Bob.
James Rosenquist: "Astor
Collection of the artist
Photo by Peter Foe,
courtesy of James Rosenquist
At first glance, two of your early drawings, oil on paper, look very
much like Hans Hofmann's paintings. The paint is very push/pull, but if
you look closer, it feels like things are pulling apart - ["push/pull"
was Hofmann's concept of creating spatial depth and visual tension
through the expanding and contracting dynamics of the chosen colors and
Rosenquist: I love
Hans Hofmann. I think he's terrific.
Kaplan: How do you feel
about abstraction now vs. how you felt about it years ago?
Rosenquist: I don't know if this is true, that Hans used to talk
about push/pull - back then, there were books on painting, about tension
in painting. Later, people realized that it isn't push/pull in a
scientific sense, it's actually much quicker. The identification of
anything goes more like blink, blink, blink, blink, BLINK. So I thought
in contemporary life, what is danger? Danger might look like a pair of
girl's legs going across the street and a part of a taxi cab door and a
headlight. It's these fast little glimpses that make up the feeling of
contemporary life and how we live it.
Kaplan: You see
things very fast.
Rosenquist: Not like a racecar driver.
Kaplan: They have to see everything coming.
see, anything you do, you check it out. You go blink, blink, blink,
BLINK. That's all.
James Rosenquist: "Sightseeing", 1962
The Saint Louis Art Museum,
Funds given by the Shoenberg Foundation, Inc.
Photo courtesy of James
Kaplan: One of your
drawings from 1965 is titled
Circles of Confusion. Can you talk about that drawing? You use a
repeat pattern of General Electric [GE] logos throughout as a kind of on
again/off again flash. It feels like things are suspended as they go in
and out of focus.
Rosenquist: "Circles of confusion"
happen if you take the camera lens and point it at the light. You get a
refraction in the camera lens which produces round balls called "circles
of confusion." Sometimes you see them in a movie, when the camera hits
the sun. But I also thought of that politically.