The Last Living Surrealist

John Haber
in New York City

James Rosenquist

Right at the start of James Rosenquist's retrospective, some truly awful sketches caught me by surprise. Not that the quality bothered me. Plenty of young artists imitate tired movements before inventing their own. At the Guggenheim, the inventions come quickly indeed. It needs more than three floors just to get from 1962 to 1964.

No, I mean exactly what he imitated. I mean what turned him on to art. It may mark him as Pop Art's true traditionalist. For better or for worse, no one else so cherished images for their own sake. In Rosenquist's mix of commercial realism and nightmare reality, one could call him the last living Surrealist. James Rosenquist's Collage for President Elect (collection of the artist, 1960–1961)

Guess again

Try guessing whom he admired. Rosenquist had been living off painting billboards, much as Andy Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud had survived on commercial art—and learned from it. Warhol and Thiebaud play with the self-contained frame and deadening repetition of magazine illustration. Rosenquist seems to have learned as well. He does not just take scraps from advertisements and images of desire as his subject matter. He also makes representation itself a billboard.

Rosenquist's mature canvases crowd one out of the room. His single most famous work, F-111, has to circle a gallery's walls simply to fit. Perhaps, then, he first copied the scale and design of Jackson Pollock or Guernica. Well, no. Guess again.

Then, too, Rosenquist's sinister Pop Art has an aggressive mix of fire and ice, as somber when it comes to popular culture as Philip Guston. He has little use for Roy Lichtenstein and his enthusiasm for Mickey Mouse, Warhol's near idolatry for Jackie, or Robert Indiana and love. He cannot share Thiebaud's nostalgia for dessert. When the face of his Collage for President Elect morphs into a slice of cake, the message is clear. Politicians serve as one more commodity. Let them eat cake.

Rosenquist rips images in pieces and thrusts them in one's face. Painting after painting evokes a woman's eyes, lips, and bare legs, sometimes squeezed into shards of color like razor wire. Like a much younger artist, Matthew Brannon, he dares one to lust after advertising before he tears it apart. Perhaps, then, he first emulated Willem de Kooning or Pablo Picasso's lovers and whores. Nope, not that either. One last try.

How about something nearer the present? Pop Art did not emerge out of nowhere. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, in his combines, appropriate images for mass consumption well before 1960. Also like Robert Rauschenberg, Rosenquist admires John Cage's circle. He calls one work Merce Cunningham's Shoes. He might have turned to "combine paintings" in 1959—but no again.

Maybe one should not ask. When the breakthrough comes, after all, it comes fast. Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Rosenquist all showed at Leo Castelli in 1962. From that moment, surely any exercises in fine art has to look academic. Yet those early sketches risk it. They evoke the most lyrical, personal, and tormented of Abstract Expressionists, Arshile Gorky.

Pop Art's illustrator

I do not wish to make too much of ink stains that Rosenquist may just as soon forget. Obviously he outgrew watery abstraction—and a good thing, too. Still, the choice makes sense somehow.

Gorky hit New York with a passion for Cubism and for drawing, and Rosenquist has made collage his life. Do Rauschenberg's Bed, Warhol's Brillo, and Lichtenstein's Ben Day dots appropriate familiar objects and trademark images? Rosenquist would rather slice them, dice them, reduce them to anonymity, and reproduce them in his own hand. His paintings stem from literal collage as well. These experiments on paper, also at the Guggenheim, cast actual clippings amid drawing and penciled notes.

Even more, Gorky's fluid textures and images had taught young Abstract Expressionists about Surrealism. Do Warhol's car crashes and George Segal's humanity in white plaster worry reality to death? Rosenquist keeps it alive but defiantly surreal.

One sees it in the work's emotional distance. Warhol's perpetual erasure still tempts me and frightens me. Rosenquist, in contrast, treats advertising and real life as one long, disturbing dream.

One sees it in the sensual overload. Think of Salvador Dalí and Dalí's open, cluttered landscapes and films. Think of André Breton's fascination with madness and sexual attraction. Rosenquist's icons keep interrupting one another, and nothing looks more casual or dangerous than sex. Women have the pale allure of old fashion magazines. Lipstick tubes target the viewer like heavy artillery.

Above all, one sees it in the very emphasis on images. Much art of the 1960s and 1970s—including abstraction and Minimalism as well as Pop—derides mere "illustration." Rosenquist has a nasty world to illustrate.

Selling out

All Pop Art engages the past. Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes and Mickey Mouse parody fine art and comic books, but with love for both. With Claes Oldenburg, household objects take the shape of monumental sculpture. Warhol's silkscreens reimagine painting as faded, reproducible, and impossible to forget. In turn, they play mind games with the past. In their concern for materials, their new media, and their strategy of appropriation, they leave one aware of the art object in confrontation with oneself.

Rosenquist's style does not as directly challenge the past, because it implies a perpetual present. He paints thinly, on flat surfaces of metal and canvas. After his President Elect, he prefers juxtaposed elements to melting transitions. Although he recycles motifs from painting to painting, no one work effects deadening repetition. He appropriates ads, but as cheap illusions, and he stays on the message.

More often than not, that means a political message: stuff is bad for you. Better watch out, because someone is always trying to sell you something—maybe even art. President Kennedy is out to sell you chocolate cake, or maybe chocolate cake is out to sell you Kennedy. F-111 turns from the fighter plane, then in development for the Vietnam War, to a smiling little girl and tinned spaghetti. The girl sits under a salon hair dryer that suggests another warhead.

In the pencil sketches, I could not always tell the future title, such as "I love you with my Ford," from the barbed notes to Rosenquist himself, such as "vanity." I still do not know which to call "death and taxes."

I wonder if his peers' soft spot for popular culture dismayed him. Where Warhol has Jackie in mourning, the ultimate good girl, Rosenquist has Marilyn the suicidal temptress. Where Kennedy's idealism serves Rauschenberg as an emblem for his art, Rosenquist has Kennedy the manipulator and the product. Where Rauschenberg's space capsule defies gravity, Rosenquist shows the explosion of 1970 that killed three astronauts. Around the same time, he criticized the space program for taking money away from home.

Even Segal, it can seem, treats a tired commuter or the Holocaust as less a political crisis than an existential one. For Rosenquist, art has to exist in the political and cultural present. Forget metaphysical puzzles and the crisis of the art object. Vision is all that matters, because seeing is too often believing.

Fits and starts

Then again, maybe Rosenquist understand Pop Art's ambivalence to mass culture. Maybe it stood for him as a temptation and a warning. If commerce absorbs everything, it can absorb painting. In fact, once Rosenquist becomes an old master, his attitudes change. In his late work, space flight takes on positive connotations, and the paintings increasingly look like outtakes from an Imax film, only chillier. Fortunately, Stanley Kubrick never optioned him.

Scarier still, was the image's temptation there all along? Any strategy of repetition and appropriation gets deadening, even Rosenquist's. Perhaps that explains his uneven career. The Guggenheim's long retrospective goes by surprisingly quickly. It also contains some unexplained fits and starts.

Those first years, the early 1960s, have his classics. Yet for all their deadly earnest, they belong now to an idyllic past. The images have the remoteness of early color printing. A few, like an advertisement floating over a suburban house, come off as way too obvious.

By the mid-1960s, Rosenquist himself sees the problem. He introduced collage elements, such as paint-spattered objects in front of a canvas, but one can miss them entirely. He tries his hand briefly at sculpture. Circular saw blades pop out of his clear-plastic toaster in place of sliced bread. However, I mistook the image entirely—for a gift-wrapped box. A neon tube darting through a bush of barbed wire may evoke the Vietnam War, or maybe not.

Then, for nearly ten years, the retrospective almost stops. As another politically aware individual, Joseph Heller, wrote around the same time, Something Happened. One barely spots that 1970 Apollo 13 explosion. It falls in a side gallery, out of sequence, as if not to interrupt the silence.

Just as suddenly, in 1977, Rosenquist returns with new energy. Colors grow more artificial and more exciting, like a teenager late to the 1960s party. Images invade the viewer's space, like those lipsticks, not far from a different kind of heat, with a pail of molten metal bursting through a window. Pencils tumble out of a cylinder, as if art grew out of the barrel of a gun. The aggression adds up to some of his best and most allusive work.

A dream of the present

All too naturally, even this breakthrough cannot last. Increasingly, Rosenquist breaks up images into smaller chunks and scatters color more widely. It approaches abstraction. It also achieves total blandness. A simultaneous show down in Chelsea has four walls of vertical color panels awaiting a performance. They update the installation for F-111, but without the thrill.

The curators still sense political urgency, but I do not. A series about the biosphere looks more like eye candy than like a planet at risk. Murals for a German bank may criticize global finance, but they could just as well celebrate it—or tune it out entirely.

The museum's own scale reduces the impact. The Guggenheim recreates Castelli's four walls for F-111, but a big gallery can look oddly small in a big museum, and not long ago the Modern chose instead a long corridor for the same work. (A mock-up of Pollock's studio looked smaller than life, too, in his retrospective at the Modern.) The narrow ramp hardly helps. Does it remind you of a toilet bowl? The show looks like it is trying to squeeze billboards into the bathroom.

In a sense, the old charge of "illustration" sticks. Rosenquist has made some of Pop Art's most memorable images, I think, but one of its least memorable careers. They stick in the mind, but they sit still. Warhol's images, in contrast, have a way of looking strange each time precisely because one never forgets them.

In another sense, however, the charge has no relevance. Not even Rosenquist can defy the dance between image and object. Not even he can sort out past and present, appropriation and reality. His images of images have entered art's image bank. By falling prey to nostalgia despite themselves, they get a little extra. From across the ramp, sliced by the museum's own walls, his accumulated billboards may even become a challenge of their own.

Besides, Rosenquist contributed something. I may prefer neo-Dada to neo-Surrealism. Surrealism has to bear with overtones of pretension and escapism. Still, no one else locates its dreams so clearly in the marketplace. They have entered the conscious present.

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The retrospective of James Rosenquist ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 25, 2004. Robert Miller gallery took over the space of Anita Nosei for "Home Sweet Home," through November 23, 2003.


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