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Kaplan: Is the idea of the peripheral vision something you're still working with in your paintings now?

Rosenquist: Always. You never let anything go.

Kaplan: Your work in the sixties referenced images from a recent past, in other words, the fifties. What are your thoughts now about that work, and how does history function in your work now?

Rosenquist: Well, a person's ideas keep changing and continue to change. At that time in the late fifties, I left the Midwest with all my Midwest values and I hit the streets here in New York. I had no money, nothing. I was poor. I met a lot of Beat generation people, but they seemed to be a bit nostalgic. They seemed to live in this never-never land where something old was an antique, something new you couldn't afford, but the memory of something four, five, or six years ago was kind of dim. The memory of recent history was like "when did that happen? how did that happen?"

I was down on Coentis Slip and Jack Youngerman was married to this gal Delphine Seyrig, who was an aspiring actress; a year later, she was in a movie and became a big star. She was in Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais, so I thought, well that's peculiar. That sense of anonymity was popular at the time, and so was French Existentialism. It was the anonymity of doing anything, not nihilism.

I did a little collage of some telephone executives, and the caption said they were coming up from the ranks, so I erased all their faces. It's called Up from the Ranks . I did it in 1961. And here they are, up from the ranks, going nowhere, becoming anonymous again.

Now I have totally different ideas. One of my last ideas was thinking of the earth continuing to spin through space with no human beings on it because of the consciousness of the human mind. If there weren't any humans on earth, would that be nice, or not - because the earth would be a pleasant place with nobody on it. No problems with humanity and no communal consciousness.

Kaplan: No messing up.

Rosenquist: No messing up. The big problem is humanity. Humanity causes the big problem on this earth. Lately, as I get older, I've given some speeches for doctors. I was just given another honorary doctorate degree, and I said: "To all you living organisms out there, I wish all you graduates a wonderful life in art." I begin to think of people as merely heads floating around in a room. I have a new, different idea.

Kaplan: That reminds me of what you said to Lucy Lippard a long time ago when you talked about searching for a brutality that hadn't been assimilated by nature. I was curious about that idea of scavenging around in the landscape.

James Rosenquist: "Flowers, Fish and Females for the Four Seasons", 1984
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi, 1995.436
Photo © 1996 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Rosenquist: A French Impressionist painter would start a painting in a field. The big toughness of that painting was ripping a piece of nature out of nature and putting it on an easel in a house, then it would be a nice thing, with maybe a few pieces of grass stuck to the paint. In Picasso's painting or Matisse's painting, this wrenching something from nature, no matter how realistic, is still an abstraction and an expression, but also an abstraction.

I mean, look at Olmstead, who did Central Park. Central Park was really a kind of rough, shabby wilderness place. It's very hilarious, he came along and reconstructed the whole park and made an art piece out of it that really went back to nature that was really very pretty and very beautiful. Then people said: "Didn't that just exist by itself, wasn't that all natural?" No, this guy designed that park. I've been asked now to do a park bench for Central Park Conservancy.

Kaplan: What will you do?

Rosenquist: I'm not going to tell yet, CBS is going to film me doing it at the beginning of July.

Kaplan: I remember a quote of yours about being a billboard artist and being at the epicenter of the world if disaster struck. I think you said the epicenter would be Canal and Broadway.

Rosenquist: Claes Oldenburg said Canal and Broadway. I said if there was an atomic war, I would really have a great view because I'd be blasted off a signboard in Times Square.

James Rosenquist: "Tumbleweed", 1963-66
Collection of Virginia and Bagley Wright
Photo by Eduardo Calderon, courtesy of James Rosenquist

Kaplan: What visual work by other artists has been important to you?

Rosenquist: Many, many, many. Basically, I like something that is labor-intensive. Look at Bernini's sculpture in the Villa Borghese: even if he had 37 assistants, he still didn't have electricity. I mean, it's labor-intensive. I get a kick out of that. I mean, when something is labor-intensive, the artist will discover something in doing all that labor. Something very important.

Kaplan: Out of the process of doing that work?

Rosenquist: Yes, out of the process of doing that work and the concept. You can have an idea called a conceptual work, but the concept rises or falls according to one's own feeling. That's like Japanese satori, which means having a higher quality of senses and realization, something you have to work at and maintain, according to the Japanese. If you make some physical object, it could be good, bad, banal, anything - you still have something to relate to a day later or another time when you're not feeling the same way.

Cheryl Kaplan is an artist, writer and curator. She lives in New York. Her writing has appeared in Flash Art, smock, tema celeste, BOMB and Art in America.

Translation: Karsten Kredel.

Copyright for all images of James Rosenquist's work: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

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