I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
James Rosenquist, one of the key American Pop Artists, has been making and showing his paintings for over 25 years. His early ’60s work, like that of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, provides a seductive but critical mirror image of the mass media.
Rosenquist’s Pop period came to a close in 1965 with his F-111, a multi-panel room sized painting dominated by an image of an American bomber. Among his more recent projects are Star Thief, 1980, a mural originally commissioned for the Miami Airport, and Flowers Fish and Females for the Four Seasons which now hangs in the restaurant. The artist is presently working on a series of paintings entitled, Welcome to the Water Planet.
Mary Anne Staniszewski I’d like to talk about your early work as well as the recent projects. Let’s start with now and work our way back. What are you working on?
James Rosenquist I realized that a number of things happened to me and occurred to me. Like they do to everybody. And these experiences were saved or accumulated and then I put them together in some peculiar way and that peculiar thing becomes a painting idea. Sometimes I think about a major question or a major theme and then I think about imagery in regards to that. So, currently one of the themes is called Welcome to the Water Planet. We live on a water planet. And it was an idea of people putting to bed, or putting under their pillow, the fear of the atomic holocaust, a nuclear war. So the idea, the division of the ideas in this series of paintings, came from early settlers in America hiding in lakes or streams while a forest fire went by. The imagery that occurred to me seemed like a water nymph hiding in a water lily while some star nova or nuclear thing went by far away. And also the idea, welcome to the water planet, was a “welcome.” It was sort of against chauvinism.
MS Did you do any of the water planet paintings yet?
JR I did. One is going to Atlanta. I’m working on those now.
MS Where is it going to in Atlanta?
JR In this new building in Atlanta.
MS It’s one of these corporate buildings?
MS Is most of your work being bought by corporations right now?
JR No. No. Private people and museums. Museums seem to have a want list—and a budget. But they never match … .
MS Do you work in the same method as you did in ’61?
JR Well there’s another attitude before you get there, and that is to dream up the image in one’s mind and to want to do it. A person’s never satisfied with an image.
MS So you see it in your mind’s eye first.
JR You see it in your mind’s eye. It’s perfection. To try to match that up with reality is extremely disconcerting and troublesome at best.
MS Have you ever achieved this in your work?
JR I don’t think so, no. I wouldn’t think so. But to do that, I always thought that a person should really practice how to paint and how to draw and should really get skilled trying to do the final trick, the final vision, the real vision. The other method is more like a collage attitude of life. You walk around in a certain state of mind and you stumble on it and there it is, like love at first sight.
MS You see yourself working in the former method?
JR Well, I work both ways. To be creative is to be accepting, but it’s also to be harsh on one’s self. You just don’t paint colors for the silliness of it all. And maybe it has to be different, some new pictorial invention. There’s a meaning and an idea and many layers of vision in the same picture. And so at first glimpse, it looks like that (snaps fingers) and then you look a little further and go, “Oh there’s something there too.” There’s more there. Any great masterpiece painting is like that. There’s subliminal values and colors there that hide things and seep out slowly.
MS Because your work is composed of fragments, it always has that abstract quality. But to get back to the point you were making about coming upon things, stumbling upon things, taking them and collaging them together. Could you talk about the way you first began to put the image fragments together and what led you to do that? I’m going to read to you a part of a 1964 interview which I think is one of your best.
You said that you had some reasons for using commercial images that these people, the critics, probably hadn’t thought about—do you remember this?—You said, “I use anonymous images—it’s true my images have not been hot-blooded images—they’ve been anonymous images of recent history. In 1960 and 1961 I painted the front of a 1950 Ford … . It wasn’t a nostalgic image either. I use images from old magazines—when I say old I mean 1945 to 1955—a time we haven’t started to ferret out as history yet.” What led you to use these older, cool images?
JR Well, I’ll tell you why. It seems like every artist looks for his own—his or her own space. Their own ground-breaking places and it seemed then that the latest rage was French non-objective painting. And as I understand it—French non-object painting—there’s no meaning, except pure color and it’s supposed to be pure color and pure form. Well in the attempts at doing these non-objective paintings—which had vestiges of leftover cubism, or whatever—things would appear, unconsciously. I saw an exhibition at the Howard Wise gallery on West 57th of this old artist whose teacher had been Hans Hoffman. And Hans Hoffman walked into the room. It was a winter day and Morris Kantor and Miles Forest were in the room. Old Hans came in with a “Snoopy hat” on with its earmuffs down and his hearing aid. He said to this man who had been his student, “What’s that there?” And he replied, “It’s winter solstice” or something like that. And Hans says, “looks like Popeye to me. Looks like Popeye sitting in a chair, see, see his head.” And there was Popeye. He had a pumpkin head, a stick body, big feet, hands, and it was supposed to be totally non-objective painting. Only colors. Feeling. And it embarrassed the man and from there onward that was Popeye. You could not eliminate that. So, the point is—my ambition at that time was to get below zero.
I wanted to deal with things in a different way. First of all I used the grisaille palette, black and white. I started on black and white. What I wanted to do was to take these images, anonymous images from advertising, place them in a picture plane, in a certain size and a certain scale—really well-painted fragments—and have the largest fragment the most close-up and the most anonymous because it was magnified so much. It would be like seeing an image, but you wouldn’t quite know what it is. So, people thought they were mysterious. These paintings had a mystery about them. “I know what that is.” But what is that?
Now what happened to me: when I came to New York, I had a scholarship to the Art Students League. My life changed drastically. I was like a young bum. I had no money. I lived really poorly. I walked everywhere. The luxury of being in a car was amazing. At the same time I encountered Beat Generation people. I met Jack Kerouac, I met Allen Ginsburg. I didn’t know him very well. Also part of that—but not the so-called Beat Poets—were Miles Forest, Bob Indiana, Larry Rivers, Dick Bellamy. I think in 1959 Esquire listed Coenties Slip* as the “in” place to live. During the mid-’50s Betty Parsons existed, Sidney Janis, and then there was East 10th Street between Third Avenue and Broadway. The 10th Street Galleries showed Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan—second generation Abstract Expressionists. The new unusual place was Coenties Slip. Bob Indiana, Jack Youngerman, Delphine Seyrig, Ellsworth Kelly were down there. There was also Randy Mullerman, Agnes Martin, and Jesse Wilkinson (I think it’s important to mention the people who didn’t get famous) and the Beat people were around too. Ivan Karp wasn’t a Beat at all. Roy Lichtenstein wasn’t either. The WWII veterans, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Sal Scarpitta, and Leo Castelli. They had a different attitude. The Beat Generation people are ten years younger and hadn’t been through a big conflict … . Suddenly they were stunned by the atomic bomb. The Beats were allegedly reacting to the nihilism of a holocaust. The Beats, their life was sort of nomadic. And my life was nomadic—simple things and simple pleasures, a marijuana joint, a peanut-butter sandwich—extremely simple. I remember seeing three guys walking along, and one guy picking up a cigarette without breaking his stride—smoking someone else’s cigarette butt. And the funny part was that you couldn’t tell if these people were really from wealthy families or really poor ones. They were all acting this way.
So finally after being in New York a long time, two girls took me to the race track in a car. A car! Fantastic, a seat in a car. I appreciated the thing in a completely different way. Also my values had changed. I really lost track of what things were. What I mean is in a capitalist country, or not a capitalist, in a kind of country where capitalists advertise in media—I lost track of all that. I wasn’t up on the latest rage. For about a year when I first came to New York I lost it. That put my mind in a whole different situation. I tried to develop some ground, some idea—where people could look at something, yet appreciate it for another kind of value. A different kind of value.
So, I thought the problem now is eliminating images from a non-objective painting and I would use imagery as a guide to show what things will be looked at first, like in a game. Something simple like that. But I’ll use this with the same power that I had painted billboards—the same strength and intensity and exactness used for selling these products, but they won’t be made and they won’t be painted to be sold. We are numbed in this atmosphere as young children and young people. So l decided that I was going to work in this advertising media numbness. It would be something if someone did that now. It still would be viable.
So, I started doing this painting of pieces of imagery and it changed and changed and changed. I painted them over and over and over. And I was experimenting. It was my first painting called Zone. And it wound up just being part of a lady’s face and part of a tomato all in gray. Underneath that painting are many, many images. And I was testing things out. I had a man committing suicide like a later Warhol painting. The man going head first out the window was only about as big as a cat on the scale of the canvas. So I eliminated that. I had a huge shirt front with a big salt shaker sprinkling on the lapel, like sprinkling salt on a dove’s tail. All sorts of surrealistic things, yet the scale was too large for what I thought surrealism was. I never wanted to be pigeon-holed.
MS You said you wanted to paint with the power and gusto of advertising. In a certain sense were you trying to beat them at their game?
JR Beat them at the game would mean to use something with the force of death, not beat them at their game, but to use something with that force—then people would be made to look at it differently. You see, I’m not beating them at their game, I’m just using their tools of paint and my talent to change this—to not think of this as advertising. This is a painting.
And I think Warhol did that too, but he just put the image there. He did, however, change it synthetically with silkscreen. But I rarely ever used, I never used a brand name. I think the closest I came to doing something like that was when I painted a big dish of red Campbell’s noodle soup—way before I ever saw that Warhol did a soup can. It was called, In the Red, this big painting with part of female and male images in the big red tomato soup.
MS There have been fragments, like Pepsi Cola, or Coca Cola. Think of your Marilyn Monroe.
JR Yes. I never used the whole word Pepsi Cola.
MS No, it’s always a fragment of things.
JR Fragments of things, because it is too easy then.
MS And then it would be too much like promoting the products … . Did you have Lifemagazines from 1945 lying around, or did you go and find them? I presume you got most of these images from Life. How did you start collecting them? What made you think to do that?
JR I just found some old Life magazines and I was, you see, searching for the look of something. My aesthetic may come from—this may sound strange—but I was always up close to a huge image and it had to be exact. I felt as though I was painting this whale, like a Moby Dick—that feeling. The mystery of the big shape was uncomfortably close and made me want to think about that kind of thing. Also, I experimented with tricks. One of those tricks was when Gene Kornberg or Mr. Strauss or Jake Berman would say, “Here’s some photographs of movie stars, black and white, now you make them look like they’re on a film clip—put some blue in it.”
Then one time I was working up on the Bruckner Expressway on Friday and the boss said, “I’m sending you up there with three men.” I was the boss. I was young. I wasn’t a smart ass but I was in my twenties and they were all in their fifties and sixties. Anyway, as a joke, our job was to paint a huge billboard of a loaf of bread on a bakery. We had to paint it out light gray, to get it ready for Monday. So each man mixed up his gray paint. They all mixed up light gray paint and when they went out to lunch I took about half a cup of red and poured it in one and a half of yellow and poured it into another and a half a cup of green and I mixed it up, and you couldn’t tell. It was gray. Right? As a joke. So, they all went to work and they painted their part of it. The four of us, we each painted a quarter or more. Finished. Everything was cool. We go downstairs and I said, “Gee look at that!” And they turned around and there was this—looked like a Jasper Johns. There was this gray, a yellow gray thing, blue gray thing, there was this red gray thing and they said, “Jeez, what happened?” I said, “Must be the chemicals.” It must be. I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt anything. It didn’t matter. They were afraid they were going to lose their jobs. I never told them. I used to do that constantly. I used to do things, because I was experimenting as a painter there on a big scale.
MS Did you make collages and then use them as a basis for your paintings?
JR No. Here’s what I did. During my billboard experience, I would be handed a paper bag full of material and the images were placed on a sign board. Each image was a different size. It’s like a basis for the beginning of my painting. So then I’d be given a blueprint and they’d say now this rose for Melrose Whiskey is this size—I’d have to adjust the scale. That became very interesting. So in my sketches, I’ll start off with a couple of ideas, a couple of images.
MS Did everything come from magazines?
JR Also from my own photographs. I’d take my own photographs or from magazines, or even a piece of paper—it could be anything. I’d put that together.
MS And the new work?
JR The new thing is a search to find more space in a canvas. Also, I still feel very reactionary about not wanting to look like anyone else’s artwork. Ever since I started painting I never wanted to look like anyone else’s …
MS Your work has been talked about in terms of discarding certain myths regarding the creativity and the power of a painter. I’m talking about the faith in a painter’s brushstroke being the signature of that touch of genius. A de Kooning brushstroke could only be his and therein lies the trace of a kind of macho mystery, a creative power played out on the surface of the canvas with paint. In your work you gave up a little bit of this power to do something new. Were you aware of that?
JR No. I wanted to paint it so well that you wouldn’t see my brushstroke …
MS But you’ve spoken to me about turning your back on this tradition of gestural painting. By painting in this commercial way were you cheapening yourself to do something different? Actually, I’m choosing these words and phrases to provoke you.
JR No, I wasn’t cheapening myself. When I painted, I’ll have to say this now, when I painted commercial art I was painting to the best of my ability. When I painted my paintings it was the same. But when I painted billboard paintings, I wasn’t allowed to compose or think to the best of my ability. When I made my own paintings, I was allowed to do this and I did whatever I damn pleased. It’s a matter of do you dare to do that. The big thing at that time was violating the picture plane by cutting a hole in a canvas. That was really sacred. Fontana did it, … Bob Rauschenberg did a lot of crazy things with the sacred picture plane. I was curious. I did a painting where I mounted little rectangles in back of a canvas and cut the canvas and upholstered it. The painting had a mirror on it and a little box and was called Balcony.
MS Is it still around?
JR Ileana Sonnabend owns it.
MS You’ve said that you wanted the fragments to be corrosive and your titles to be corrosive in the way they interact.
JR Antidote to the acid and vice versa.
MS And the new work, is it corrosive in the same way to you?
JR I think so. The new thing is thinking that flowers are pretty, are colorful, and maybe they are, but maybe they aren’t and also the fragments of ladies faces can be sweet or they can be demons.
MS When you’re working, are you thinking about who is going to look at your paintings? Do you see your paintings as images of hetero-male desire? In the ’80s a lot of people might ask those kinds of questions as they look at your work. Are these paintings directed at a traditional notion of male desire? Do you ever think about these questions? Or are you just collecting what appeals to you? Are you thinking about your audience in this way?
JR I’m only thinking about myself. I’m not thinking about my audience … . The important thing is how can you get the energy to work. Why is it worthwhile? That’s the hard part … . When I was painting the billboards they [the bosses] would say: “That arrow shirt color looks dirty or that beer color looks like it has too much hops.” Dirty-shirt tan, Schaeffer beer with too much hops in is, this Chrysler blue they didn’t like, and I’d take them home. I was interested in these connotations that come from life and how do you change these things in non-objective paintings?
MS Are you saying that all things, even non-object painting or a color, are culturally contingent?
JR Let me explain. In my billboard, orange is orange soda and this color is Early Times Whiskey. How can one orange there be these two things? The idea is like how can a glass of water look like a glass of vodka? That kind of idea. Each orange is from the same can, but if I apply it differently it would take on a different meaning. But those painters making non-object painting, they thought they knew what orange was or that green.
… Like Warhol, I was dealing with technology. It still has to be dealt with.
MS Did you think you were being critical of technology and advertising or in F-111, the Vietnam War?
JR Well those have to be taken one at a time. With F-111, sure I was critical. I had heard about the Vietnam War from the photo-journalist Paul Berg of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1964 and he told me about things. It was the first war that was live on television. I couldn’t be complacent.
MS 1964 was very early to be against the war.
JR It is! I knew about it in ’64. The magazine to watch today is the Mercenary magazine because you read about who manipulates and who pays for these Third World Wars.
MS Do you read it regularly?
JR Oh I read it a couple of times. You get a Third World account of the conflicts. They put ads in there—“Involved in fire fight in Nam. Ready to fight”—some jerk ready to kill for about $1,500 a week.
MS And advertising, did you think your work was critical of that?
JR Being a child in America you are getting advertised at. It’s like being hit on the head with a ball-pin hammer. You become numb. You’re constantly hit upon. Here’s the way it felt. How does one exist in our culture? The way I felt when I grew up with everything, supermarkets, billboards, radios, commercials, and then at one point in my life I didn’t have any of it. So if you deal with this or stop and imagine or wonder what is really happening to you and then you make a statement about it. Then you say something about it. I wanted to use the tools and technology of advertising to do that. I had been directed to paint things hot and juicy, to sell them. Heh, I thought I could direct my feelings and observe them. I could stop painting advertisements and I could do something about it.
I forgot that I had lived for a time without any media. I would go to a live TV show to keep warm and there I noticed that this TV show being done in New York was being done with a Midwestern flat accent to appeal to a national audience. This was peculiar for me to go to these shows and to think I was back in the Midwest again. And there was another thing. I remember Delphine Seyrig who was married to Jack Youngerman and we were friends. I remember her pushing Duncan down the street in a stroller. She was wearing a beautiful housedress and then one year later she was suddenly in Last Year in Marienbad. She was an international movie star and I thought isn’t that funny. The movie had the same tone as my memory. I remember her last year and, well, she was in Last Year in Marienbad and this movie is about memory and coincidence.
It was a dispassionate view of values. I wasn’t a hot teenager who liked the hot records. I was an old man of 22.
*Coenties Slip was Rosenquist’s address at that time.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee