Understanding Rosenquist by Creating Connections to the Past

At the very end of the Fall semester, my students in ART 3663: History of American Art wrote about the James Rosenquist exhibition currently on view (until March 14, 2015) at the OSU Museum of Art. This semester, several of them are going to present their ideas at the Museum’s Late Thursdays—and on the blog, we’re going to feature some more. If you haven’t seen the exhibition yet—or even if you have!—I hope that their ideas give you some background and enrich your enjoyment and understanding of this fantastic show. We’re kicking it off with the work of Graphic Design major Alyson Stejskal, who wrote about Rosenquist’s connection to Dada.

The early 1960s were a strange, paradoxical time in the history of American art. It was wedged between a period of neutral passivity as a result of the total psychological paralysis felt during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s and a time when America was on the brink of war and beckoned for social revolution. Pop artists of the early 1960s such as James Rosenquist responded to America’s culture of blind consumerism in a way that seemed blandly indifferent, as modeled after artists like Cage, Johns and Rauschenberg during the period Moira Roth calls the “Aesthetic of Indifference,” but quietly takes a stance on societal issues by using cryptic symbols from American popular culture. Rosenquist’s use of recognizable imagery juxtaposed in an unorthodox way creates connections to the history of art in America by harkening back to earlier artists such as French-American Dada artist Marcel Duchamp.

In her article, “The Aesthetic of Indifference,” art historian Moira Roth explains America’s collective state of mind during the McCarthy era, a time of rightwing Communist manhunts which led to a widespread feeling of indifferent numbness. This “embittered passivity,” as Roth calls it, started manifesting itself in American works of art during this time. This indifferent numbness is seen in works of literature such as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which deals with themes of alienation and belonging, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which talks about themes of identity and loss of inner self. The Bell Jar even talks about the main character’s morbid fascination with the Rosenberg execution during the McCarthy era on the first page, drawing a definite connection between the political climate at the time and Americans’ reactions.

Michael Mitchell, cover design for JD Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye,” 1951.

Michael Mitchell, cover design for JD Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye,” 1951.

Roth states that in the 1950s, “a growing number of intellectuals consciously espoused indifference as a virtue, as the correct way to deal with an uncertain world” (Roth 47). Indifference was the only way American artists and intellectuals knew how to deal with the mass hysteria of the Cold War. They “made and talked about art characterized by tones of neutrality, passivity, irony, and… ‘Amusement’ and ‘indifference’ became positive values” (Roth 48). These same ideals are central to the Dada movement and the work of Marcel Duchamp, who essentially laid the groundwork for artists of the Aesthetic of Indifference, and in turn, for Rosenquist and the Pop art movement.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1964 [original, lost, 1917]. Porcelain, collection of the Tate, London (click image to go to their site).

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1964 [original, lost, 1917]. Porcelain, collection of the Tate, London (click image to go to their site).

Pop art’s roots can be traced back to Duchamp and his boldly controversial readymade sculpture Fountain, a porcelain urinal turned upside down with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” and the year “1917” carelessly written on it, which he submitted to the annual show held by the New York Society of Independent Artists. This challenged the notion that art had to be separate from the everyday and had to be a creative form of individual expression (Miller et al. 431). Duchamp asked important questions about what was considered art and singlehandedly reinvented the American aesthetic by opening it up to everyday objects, which paved the way for Rosenquist’s work.

James Rosenquist, “Dog Descending a Staircase,” 1982. Lithograph and intaglio, Image courtesy of Universal Limited Art Editions (click image to go to their site).

James Rosenquist, “Dog Descending a Staircase,” 1982. Lithograph and intaglio, Image courtesy of Universal Limited Art Editions (click image to go to their site).

Rosenquist seems to recognize his connection, evident in his 1982 lithograph, Dog Descending a Staircase, which pays homage to Duchamp’s work and draws a historical connection in more ways than one. Rosenquist uses allusion and pun in his title Dog Descending a Staircase, which is a direct reference to Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, to talk about the parallel theme of gender representation. Rosenquist’s piece consists of two everyday objects and an everyday scene; mechanical gears, a dog descending a flight of stairs, and a feminine 1950s style doll with an apathetic stare. The dog represents the man of the house and the mechanical gears can be seen as a symbol of “man’s business” or a metaphorical representation of the way men are viewed in society, and the doll represents the woman of the house and the cult of domesticity in which she finds herself.

Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2),” 1912. Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art (click image to go to their site).

Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2),” 1912. Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art (click image to go to their site).

The juxtaposition of these three symbolic objects raises questions about traditional gender roles in society, as does Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which depicts an abstract nude body descending a staircase as if it were a time-lapsed sequence by using overlapping geometric planes of color. At the time this piece was created, viewers were disturbed by the ambiguity of the nude figure. The viewer cannot clearly distinguish the figure as male or female, which suggests it is genderless. Rosenquist relies on the viewer’s previous knowledge of Duchamp’s famous work in order to draw a connection to the historical piece and its underlying theme of gender representation. By drawing this historical connection between the two works, Rosenquist provides the viewer with context to his work’s symbolic meaning and a humorous play on words.

Much of Rosenquist’s early 1960s-1980s body of work, including Dog Descending a Staircase, contains everyday household objects collaged together in unusual ways, which is reminiscent of the Dada movement as a whole. Rosenquist also makes numerous connections to American art history in his work, as exemplified in his allusion to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. However, compared with Dada, he adds a deeper layer of hidden meaning which sets his work apart the earlier movement. Rosenquist does not fight to defend his viewpoint, which is never overtly obvious to the viewer in his works; instead, he makes art that is largely left open to interpretation while making connections to the past to give the viewer context. By recognizing the underlying connections and allusions to historical works of art in Rosenquist’s work, the viewer is able to better understand the hidden meaning behind his work.


Works Cited

Miller, Angela L., et al. American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.

Roth, Moira. “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Artforum XVI/3 (Nov. 1977): 46-53.

 

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in museum exhibitions, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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