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A life flower, a painting, and a shrunken head

"Collage is still a very viable, contemporary idea and the same goes for film, too." James Rosenquist, whose works are currently on exhibit in an expansive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, talks to Cheryl Kaplan about his influences, about Robert Rauschenberg, about the labeling of artists by art historians, about his sense of color and about his malted milk mixer.

I arrive at the artist's Chambers Street studio. Out of the spill of New York, an elevator door opens. It is operated by James Rosenquist in person. Several Ferrari people have just left, including Mr. Jean Todt, the Scuderia Ferrari Team Principal who is in charge of Formula 1 racers like Michael Schumacher, and Mr. Luciano Secchi, a kingpin of racing sponsorships. Rosenquist has arrived in New York from Aripeka, Florida, where he lives and works most of the time. We are speaking on the occasion of his major retrospective, which traveled first to the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, and will next travel to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain following its New York debut at the Guggenheim in October.

Cheryl Kaplan: Your paintings often accommodate several versions of an incident.

James Rosenquist: I use sections of people's faces seized with the shock that they might wake up and be reincarnated into something else. Who knows what life and death will bring - the real beginning of the painting Star Thief, for instance, came from wondering what future generations would live like. Would they live in a high-tech environment, which was very popular years ago, or would they live in a meadow?



James Rosenquist: "F-111", 1964-65
The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alex L. Hillman and
Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (both by exchange), 1996
Photo courtesy of James Rosenquist


Kaplan: In F-111, done between 1964-1965, the 51 aluminum panels that make up the painting function like stills of a film. The vertical section at the end has no image on it at all. The entire painting is 86 feet long -

Rosenquist: I used the aluminum panels in F-111 for their reflection. Later, I used mirrorized Mylar for similar reasons. If you moved around, the reflections would change.

Kaplan: Why did you use panels?

Rosenquist: I didn't want to continue damaging huge paintings every time I had to move.

Kaplan: Your dad started a tourist camp in 1941 in Northern Minnesota. It was near the railroad tracks. What was the relationship between his failure at that business and the fact that you lived in one cabin, slept in another, and ate dinner in a third cabin? I'm fascinated by this early reference to separate places for each of your everyday activities.

Rosenquist: Guess what happened in 1941? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and so the tourist business went to pieces.

Kaplan: Transitory or transitional places frequently appear in your work. There's always a sense of something coming and going.



James Rosenquist: Collage for "F-111", 1964
Collection of the artist
Photo by George Holzer, courtesy of James Rosenquist


Rosenquist: This carries through my whole life. In 1942, we moved to Minneapolis. My mother and father had both been pilots in 1931, and then the Depression came along and that was the end of that. During the War, starting in 1942, my father was an A+E inspector. He worked for Northwest Airlines servicing WWII bombers at Wright-Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio. We moved around a lot, and my life was very nomadic.

Kaplan: Terms like collage and mural have been applied to your work going back to the sixties -

Rosenquist: True.

Kaplan: In Artforum, the artist and critic Sidney Tillim once classified you as a Cubist. But your practice of adding and subtracting feels structurally closer to film editing, where transitions from one frame to the next appear as dissolves, jump cuts, or replaced images.

Rosenquist: Everyone thinks an artist does things according to art history, but sometimes you develop your own art history. I was painting big signs in Times Square and my job was to go to a desk and find various pieces of material, like a tomato or a package of cigarettes, and take these disparate sizes of imagery and blow them up into the right scale on a sign board. That's how that structure came about.



James Rosenquist: Collage for "U-Haul-It"; "U-Haul-It,
One Way Anywhere"; and "For Bandini", 1968
Collection of the artist
Photo by George Holzer, courtesy of James Rosenquist


Certainly I like Cubism, I like the golden mean of the Renaissance, I like anything that makes a dynamic picture. But my experience came from that - so I'm not sure it's cinematic. I used to paint a lot of movie advertisements, and I got a kick out of the enlargement of the silver screen.


Kaplan: You're describing an editing or assembling process that comes out of collage and is seen in film montage.

Rosenquist: Collage is a very contemporary medium. During WWII, when I was a boy, I went into a museum and saw a show that had a live flower, a painting, and a shrunken head. I said: what does that mean to me? This combination was really peculiar. Well, these three disparate images may have been a spark to some other thing in the mind. To me, collage is still a very viable, contemporary idea and it goes that way in film, too. It doesn't matter if they're filming a love scene or something else, movie directors are concerned with making a dynamic picture. That's something they know a lot about.

Kaplan: The jump and the reconnection seem essential to your work. In what way did Rauschenberg's "Combine" paintings interest you at the time?

Rosenquist: I've known Rauschenberg for a long time [laughter], when he was sitting in a chair in the rubble of Water Street, collecting stuff for his Combines. I saw that happen. He was very bold, adventurous, and would do things and decide what they were later, just to do something. I remember years later, I was down in his studio in Captiva and we had a few drinks and he thought he'd show me his new work and it was beautiful - but there was this one thing with six bamboo poles leaning against a wall and tin cans hanging down. I said: "Bobby? All this work is fantastic, but I don't get this one. I've been looking at this work for two hours and I still don't get it." And he said: "I guess you put things on a wall before you know what they are, too!" He's very adventurous, good old Bob.


James Rosenquist: "Astor Victoria", 1959
Collection of the artist
Photo by Peter Foe, courtesy of James Rosenquist


Kaplan: At first glance, two of your early drawings, oil on paper, look very much like Hans Hofmann's paintings. The paint is very push/pull, but if you look closer, it feels like things are pulling apart - ["push/pull" was Hofmann's concept of creating spatial depth and visual tension through the expanding and contracting dynamics of the chosen colors and forms]

Rosenquist: I love Hans Hofmann. I think he's terrific.

Kaplan: How do you feel about abstraction now vs. how you felt about it years ago?

Rosenquist: I don't know if this is true, that Hans used to talk about push/pull - back then, there were books on painting, about tension in painting. Later, people realized that it isn't push/pull in a scientific sense, it's actually much quicker. The identification of anything goes more like blink, blink, blink, blink, BLINK. So I thought in contemporary life, what is danger? Danger might look like a pair of girl's legs going across the street and a part of a taxi cab door and a headlight. It's these fast little glimpses that make up the feeling of contemporary life and how we live it.

Kaplan: You see things very fast.

Rosenquist: Not like a racecar driver.

Kaplan: They have to see everything coming.

Rosenquist: You see, anything you do, you check it out. You go blink, blink, blink, BLINK. That's all.



James Rosenquist: "Sightseeing", 1962
The Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by the Shoenberg Foundation, Inc.
Photo courtesy of James Rosenquist


Kaplan: One of your drawings from 1965 is titled Circles of Confusion. Can you talk about that drawing? You use a repeat pattern of General Electric [GE] logos throughout as a kind of on again/off again flash. It feels like things are suspended as they go in and out of focus.

Rosenquist: "Circles of confusion" happen if you take the camera lens and point it at the light. You get a refraction in the camera lens which produces round balls called "circles of confusion." Sometimes you see them in a movie, when the camera hits the sun. But I also thought of that politically.


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