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 (now extended until May 9, 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 started this series a couple of weeks ago with Alyson Stejskal’s essay. This week, student Hunter Fugate considers one possible historical precedent for Rosenquist’s ambiguous imagery.
The exhibition James Rosenquist: Illustrious Works on Paper, Illuminating Paintings displays Rosenquist’s works ranging from the start of his career to current pieces. The different subjects of each piece seem ambiguous at first glance, but actually have deeper meaning that can interpreted by the viewer. In Moira Roth’s essay, “The Aesthetic of Indifference,” she refers to Jasper John’s “coded messages” and “ciphers”. Rosenquist’s random objects are actually messages he intends the viewer to decode, not random pairings. This quality of his work is similar to that of genre paintings from the mid-19th century. Because of this similarity, it can be argued that pop art is a reinvention of the genre painting style from 100 years earlier.
The exhibition opens with Coenties Slip Studio, a personal portrait of the artist and his studio. At first glance, the piece seems to be a random mess of different objects. But the piece is actually a self-portrait, even though Rosenquist is not in the painting. Each item represents part of the artist’s studio. At the start of his career, Rosenquist created cohesive pieces using completely unrelated objects, and his subject matter was close to home.
Another piece in the exhibition, F-111 North, South, East, West, can be compared to War News From Mexico from 1848 by Richard Caton Woodville. Rosenquist’s piece was created during the Vietnam war, a trying time for America. This paneled painting shows repeating objects, such as spaghetti and tires, seen in other pieces by the artist. This painting can be seen as one big message meant to be decoded. Rosenquist is commenting on the ongoing war and advances in warfare technologies. Whether or not he supports the war, or is against it, is up for interpretation.
This type of interpretive process is similar to how War News From Mexico connected with multiple audiences. At the time it was painted, the nation was new and immigrants were flooding into America. This painting shows the political hopes of people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Similar to Rosenquist, this piece uses a “neutral” tone so that the viewer can see what they want in the painting.
Genre paintings such as Woodville’s War News From Mexico usually portrayed multiple and even opposing viewpoints. It was up to the viewer to decide which viewpoint they saw. Pop artists, including Rosenquist, were unintentionally reinventing genre painting. Pop art might seem devoid of meaning, but the true purpose is for the viewer to interpret it their way. This exhibit acts as an updated version of the genre paintings of the mid-19th century. Rosenquist’s abstraction of objects allows for multiple interpretations and helped the pop art movement reinvent genre painting.
Roth, Moira. “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Artforum XVI/3 (Nov. 1977): 46-53.
This essay has been edited for length and clarity, but the substance of Hunter’s argument has not been altered.