From sign painter to Pop Art pioneer

James Rosenquist with his art work, Brazil, at the art museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
James Rosenquist with his art work, Brazil, at the art museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

James Rosenquist drew on his experience painting movie billboards to create his works, the most famous of which was F-111

NEW YORK • James Rosenquist, who helped define Pop Art in its 1960s heyday with his boldly scaled painted montages of commercial imagery, died last Friday in New York City. He was 83. His wife, Mimi Thompson, said he died at his home after a long illness.

Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Rosenquist developed a powerful graphic style in the early 1960s that traditionalists reviled and a broad public enthusiastically embraced.

The Pop Art artists took for their subject matter images and objects from the mass media and popular culture, including advertising, comic books as well as consumer products.

They also employed techniques that until then had been associated primarily with commercial and industrial methods of production, such as silk screening or, in Rosenquist's case, billboard painting.

He drew on his experience painting immense movie billboards above Times Square and a Hebrew National sign in Brooklyn.

It was while working in New York as a sign painter by day and an abstract painter by night that he had the idea to import the giant- scale, broadly painted representational pictures from outdoor advertising into the realm of fine art.

"Was importing the method into art a bit of a cheap trick?" critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker in 2003 on the occasion of a ballyhooed retrospective of Rosenquist's work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. "So were Warhol's photo silk-screening and Lichtenstein's limning of panels from comic strips."

"The goal in all cases," Mr Schjeldahl added, "was to fuse painting aesthetics with the semiotics of media-drenched contemporary reality. The naked efficiency of anti-personal art-making defines classic Pop Art. It's as if someone were inviting you to inspect the fist with which he simultaneously punches you."

Rosenquist drew inspiration, too, from the tradition of Surrealistic collage, as well as from the montage designs of contemporary advertising, to create disjunctive compositions of cropped and fragmented images of cars, movie stars, food products and domestic appliances.

Though painted by hand in a lucidly simplified realistic style, the juxtapositions of images remain mysterious. The paintings could be viewed both as critiques of modern consumerism and as glimpses into the collective American consciousness.

Rosenquist's paintings rarely contained overt political messages, but his best-known work, the enormous F-111, was made in 1964 and 1965 in part as a protest against American militarism. In it, the image of a modern fighter plane stretching 26m across a grid of 51 canvas and aluminium panels is interrupted by images of a colossal tyre, a beach umbrella, a mushroom cloud, spaghetti and tomato sauce, and a little girl under a chrome hair dryer that resembles a warhead.

The artist meant to sell the painting as separate panels, but collector Robert Scull bought it whole and kept it that way. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

James Albert Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, on Nov 29, 1933. His father, Louis, was an airplane mechanic, among other things. His mother, Ruth, an amateur painter who could also fly a plane, encouraged his interests in art and he won a scholarship to study at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

During the course of his career, he experimented with sculptural assemblage and environmental installations, and he sometimes attached three-dimensional objects to his pictures. But he remained mainly a representational painter.

In later years, some of his paintings approached a kind of futuristic, kaleidoscopic abstraction, but the play with different sorts of images and illusions persisted.

Rosenquist's first marriage, to Mary Lou Adams, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Thompson, his son, his daughter, and a grandson.

Rosenquist's first solo exhibition, in 1962, sold out. That same year, his work was included in a survey of new art at Sidney Janis Gallery called International Exhibition Of The New Realists that put what would become known as Pop Art on the map of contemporary consciousness.

In 1965, he showed F-111 in his first exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery, which by then represented most major Pop Art artists.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'From sign painter to Pop Art pioneer'. Print Edition | Subscribe