In the 1960s James Rosenquist became well known in the art world for his larger-than-life Pop art paintings. He became associated with the Pop art movement along with other artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg. Pop art challenged the meaning of “fine art” by creating works of art that depicted mass-produced objects and everyday items. Rosenquist used images of everyday items such as forks, cigarettes, and spaghetti, juxtaposing them with other images to make a large statement.
Rosenquist was born on November 29, 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He attended the University of Minnesota, and in 1955 moved to New York and began taking classes at the Art Students League before landing a job as a billboard painter. In 1960, after working as a billboard painter for a few years, he decided he wanted his artwork to echo the sense of scale that abstracted the ad images from a close range. “I decided to make pictures of fragments, images that would spill off the canvas instead of recede into it.” These combined elements have no “story to tell,” but they often do have a personal significance to the artist.
In Chambers, a lithograph made in 1980, Rosenquist uses the images of a razor, a gloved hand, and architectural columns. This print may seem random, but the images are strategically placed in certain positions to create a visual experience. Rosenquist knows how to use formal features within his work to hook a viewer in. Being a billboard painter, it was part of his job to create eye-catching advertisements. We notice instantly the formal features of the composition; the organic curvilinear pattern of the razorblade, the vertical lines of the columns, the rectilinear shape of the smudged canvas, and the ambiguous geometric shapes intersecting the picture plane. Rosenquist has said that he is very interested in the formal aspects of particular objects and images, but why did he choose to portray them in this specific manner? He wants us to ask these questions because it makes us study the piece longer. The images themselves could mean anything; a gloved hand could be a type of protection, perhaps the hand is that of an artist and the glove is distancing him or herself away from the canvas he or she is holding. The smudges could be a reference to Abstract Expressionism, which was a movement that happened slightly earlier than the Pop art movement. Abstract Expressionism was purely about surface quality and the “expression” of the artist rather than creating representational images.
Rosenquist lived on Chambers Street in New York, which is something that cannot be missed when understanding this particular lithograph. The simplified views of the interior scene could suggest his home. As mentioned earlier, Rosenquist carefully selects what he wants the viewer to see, and in some cases these careful selections are little fragments of his own personal experiences. This can be contradicted, though, because Rosenquist has also said he is interested in just the formal features and does not wish to emotionally attach a part of himself to the artwork. This creates a tension that can be seen his art, and that makes it all the more interesting.
This post is an excerpt from a research paper that was written by Trisha Thompson, a student in ART 3683: History of 20th Century Art, in the Fall of 2009.