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Paint­ing Be­low Zero: Notes on a Life in Art by James Rosen­quist with David Dal­ton, Al­fred A. Knopf, 370 pages “On April 25, 2009, a for­est fire swept through my prop­erty in Aripeka [Florida], de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing in its path. Af­ter it burned out, noth­ing was left of my house, my of­fice, my stu­dio, and sixty-two acres of lush veg­e­ta­tion,” writes Amer­i­can Pop artist James Rosen­quist in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Paint­ing Be­low Zero: Notes on a Life in Art.

For­tu­nately, the cel­e­brated artist was not in­jured — he had taken a drive that day and avoided the like­li­hood of death as a propane tank in his stu­dio ex­ploded when the fire marched through his prop­erty. On his re­turn, he found that his paint­ings, sculp­tural ma­que­ttes, and his com­plete print archive had been wiped out. As one must, Rosen­quist looks ahead as best he can. “I’m press­ing on­ward, try­ing to keep go­ing and re­ar­rang­ing my life. That’s the ob­jec­tive, to keep my san­ity.”

Rosen­quist’s life, as told in detailed snip­pets up to that point, had its share of crazy mo­ments. The artist tells of work­ing as an itin­er­ant sign painter and sleep­ing in fields; be­ing part of a paint­ing crew made up of ex-cons; looking down the bar­rel of a gun in a bar; liv­ing in New York with no heat or run­ning wa­ter; serv­ing as chauf­feur, baby sit­ter, and bar­tender to a depart­ment-store mogul; be­ing thrown in the slam­mer as an anti-war pro­tester; and work­ing within a cor­rupted la­bor union, which re­sulted in him paint­ing gi­gan­tic bill­boards on rick­ety scaf­fold­ing four sto­ries above Broad­way. Then there’s the good stuff: be­com­ing part of a cir­cle of artists who de­fined an era in Amer­i­can art. Among those whom Rosen­quist writes about areWillem de Koon­ing, Larry Poons, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschen­berg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Roy Licht­en­stein, not to men­tion the dealers, col­lec­tors, and cu­ra­tors who ap­plauded the demise of Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism and cham­pi­oned the birth of Pop Art. To­day, it’s hard to imag­ine the 1960s art scene without Rosen­quist.

The artist is best known for his enor­mous paint­ings of frag­mented im­agery com­pris­ing in­con­gru­ous jux­ta­po­si­tions of mun­dane ob­jects and generic-looking peo­ple— con­cepts clearly in­spired from his for­ma­tive years as a sign painter. The sin­gu­lar piece that brought him no­to­ri­ety — and a de­cent chunk of money— is F-111 (1964-1965), which has been re­pro­duced in scores of art-his­tory books as a prime ex­am­ple of Pop Art.

Con­ceived as an in­stal­la­tion for Rosen­quist’s first one-per­son show at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City, F-111 mea­sured 10 by 86 feet in ad­join­ing mul­ti­ple pan­els con­fig­ured to oc­cupy all four walls of the gallery. It was es­sen­tially a site-spe­cific piece. At the core of the paint­ing is the fuse­lage of a jet fighter ren­dered in pro­file and in­ter­spersed with dis­parate im­ages, in­clud­ing those of a deep-sea diver, a tan­gled web of spaghetti, a Fire­stone tire, a light bulb, and a young, smil­ing blond-haired girl un­der a hel­met­like blow dryer. The im­age not only re­flected Rosen­quist’s love of air­planes — his fa­ther had worked on mil­i­tary air­craft — but also served as a state­ment against the waste of tax­payer’s money: “One idea I wanted to in­clude in this paint­ing was about the lapse in eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity. We were pay­ing in­come taxes for what seemed to be an al­ready ob­so­lete fighter plane, for a war ma­chine that was this mon­strous vacuum cleaner for taxes.” In a chap­ter ded­i­cated to the mak­ing of F-111, the artist ex­plains the mean­ing of each vis­ual com­po­nent of the paint­ing. Few ma­jor artists are that forth­com­ing in an­a­lyz­ing their own work.

Through­out Rosen­quist’s story, he of­fers in­sight about other ma­jor paint­ings, as well as the de­vel­op­ment of his sig­na­ture style— honed, of course, from his ten­ure as a bill­board painter. But it is also en­light­en­ing to read about his be­gin­nings as a nonob­jec­tive painter at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota and to learn of his sub­se­quent stud­ies at the Art Stu­dents League in New York. “I ar­rived in New York City in Septem­ber in 1955 on the night flight from Min­neapo­lis, with less than $300 and a list of restau­rants where you could eat cheaply,” he re­calls. While tak­ing classes there, Rosen­quist en­coun­tered a fac­ulty versed in dif­fer­ent styles and tech­niques, all of which gave him a sound foot­ing in paint­ing. Will Bar­net, Ed­win Dick­in­son, Ge­orge Grosz, Mor­ris Kantor, and Va­clav Vyt­lacil were among his teach­ers. “At the Art Stu­dents League they didn’t give you a de­gree— no diploma, no grad­u­a­tion cer­tifi­cate, noth­ing on pa­per. When you left, all you got was the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing been there. You learned what you needed to learn and you left.”

From there, Rosen­quist takes the reader through his many ven­tures en route to be­com­ing one of the most rec­og­nized artists of the 20th cen­tury. How he gets there is a re­mark­able tale of luck, risk, ca­ma­raderie, and ded­i­ca­tion to his art.

— Dou­glas Fair­field

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