James Rosenquist

Painter – American


james rosenquist

Born 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA.

James Albert Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in the heart of the Great Plains. The vast distances, with their deep perspectives and the long, unbroken horizon made a powerful impression on his visual imagination, and from an early age he drew easily. His parents moved to Minneapolis when he was nine, and he continued to draw, although he had little formal exposure to fine art in his early years.

While still in junior high school, he won a scholarship to the Minneapolis School of Art, and began to consider a career as an artist, but he still had little idea what form that would take. After high school, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota, and began to seriously study the history of Western painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He found work in the summers, painting commercial signs on water tanks and grain elevators throughout the Upper Midwest, often traveling alone, and taking in the odd juxtaposition of advertising images and logos and the changing landscape of rural America in the early 1950s. He continued to work as a billboard painter in Minneapolis throughout the year.

In 1955, he won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York City, and made his way to Manhattan, the center of an international art scene dominated by the school of abstract impressionism, led by a heroic generation of insurgent creators such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Rosenquist studied with a number of modern masters, including the German exile George Grosz, whose mordant satires of German society between the wars stood at a distant remove from the non-representational abstraction of the New York school.

From all of these influences, Rosenquist had formed the ambition to make a unique and personal statement in art, but first he had to find a way to make a living and once again went to work painting billboards, high above Times Square. He absorbed the industrial techniques employed by the old hands to work on this giant scale, and carried large quantities of unused paint back to his own small studio. When he took the colors he had used to render beer, spaghetti and movie stars in the giant billboards and tried to apply them to his own canvases, he found himself returning to the techniques and imagery of advertising, but applying them to very different purposes. After surviving a terrifying fall from a scaffold high above the streets of New York, Rosenquist gave up his billboard job to devote himself to his own art full time. In 1960, he produced the first of a series of major works employing the imagery of advertising art in a fragmented, provocative way that inevitably raised questions about America's consumer culture.

From his loft studio on a narrow old street called Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, Rosenquist mingled with the painters who were his neighbors: Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Like Rosenquist, Johns had moved away from the pure abstraction and improvisational freedom of abstract expressionism into a more rigorous style, incorporating recognizable motifs form American culture. In the early '60s, Rosenquist's work was featured in influential group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Along with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, he was identified in the press as a leading light in a new movement known as Pop Art.

Rosenquist's work drew the interest of a number of notable collectors, and he soon moved to a larger studio on Broome Street, in the neighborhood now known as SoHo. He began to incorporate found materials such as barbed wire, plastic and even an automated conveyor belt into his increasingly elaborate constructions. The architect Philip Johnson commissioned Rosenquist to create a 20-by-20-foot mural for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, and Rosenquist's work began to draw national attention.

In his new work space, Rosenquist undertook his most ambitious project to date. F-111 is ten feet high and 86 feet wide; it was first exhibited wrapped around three walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery on the Upper East Side in Rosenquist's first solo exhibition. It depicts an F-111 fighter plane, a controversial new aircraft already regarded as a costly boondoggle by critics of Pentagon spending, deftly interwoven with images of assorted consumer products. "My plan," he says, "was to sell the picture in fragments, so that collectors who bought pieces of the picture would be acquiring a souvenir of an object that they had already paid for with their taxes." As it happened, a single collector bought the entire set of panels and launched it on a tour of the world's art museums. Rosenquist's fame spread across Europe, and he became of one the best-known ambassadors of American art. Many read political meaning into Rosenquist's work, but for the most part, he distanced himself from overt political involvement, although he was briefly arrested while participating in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York City in 1972