IN OTHER WORDS
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