Half of a Mind to Believe: James Rosenquist and William Harnett

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 (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. This week, Julie Allison compares Rosenquist’s narrative strategy to the illusionism of nineteenth-century painter William Harnett.

James Rosenquist is an American artist who is well known for his art and ability to incorporate mass media and commercial imagery into his art to help evoke powerful emotions. In the mid-sixties, Rosenquist used the rhetoric of his commercial world, layering and juxtaposing the imagery that was saturating his life. He produced a removed feel from commercial ideals that redressed his dismay at mass culture. With his appropriated images, he displayed a sense of narration that art historian Moira Roth would say was run through “a filter of indifference.”

James Rosenquist, "F-111 (North, South, East, West)," 1974. Lithographs on paper. Click image for source information.

James Rosenquist, “F-111 (North, South, East, West),” 1974. Lithographs on paper. Click image for source information.

In the series titled, F-111 1964-1965, Rosenquist uses known images like spaghetti, the tread of a tire, an image of a doll sat under a hairdryer, and a war plane. This is a group of work that hangs and displays together to articulate Rosenquist’s message of the jumbled, juxtaposed visual realm that makes up his reality. I feel like he selected these particular images during this phase of his career because they were items that held a significant role in how he perceived the world. Out of his vast body of work, these prints communicated anxiety and confusion. Rosenquist staged these images to further articulate how media clogged and cluttered his mind. The imagery in F-111, tells not only how he has been impacted him personally but also of a world in general that has become numb by the saturation of commercialized rhetoric in the media. Rosenquist incorporated images that were saturating his visual world and used them in a way that communicated his anxiety about the world and where it might be headed, including the uncertainty and nervousness that came with media coverage and commercialism.

William Harnett, "After the Hunt," 1885. Oil on canvas, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Click on link for source and credit information.

William Harnett, “After the Hunt,” 1885. Oil on canvas, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Click on link for source and credit information.

Another American artist also layered images from popular media to communicate an idea: William Harnett, in After the Hunt (1885). In this painting, Harnett uses well known objects to illustrate his ability to trick the eye, using trompe l’oeil to make the painting seem life-like and as though viewers were able to reach out and touch the items within the painting. Harnett used well-known hunting objects such as a knife, hunter’s bugle, and other items all hung on what looks like a wooden door but is in fact just canvas. This painting filters out of the conventional norms of its particular point in time. Harnett used familiar images and media to create “riveting trompe l’oeil still lifes, [which] participated in a prevailing cultural discourse of illusion, deception, fraud, and humbug” (Paul Staiti, Illusionism, Trompe L’oeil and the Perils of Viewership, p32). Through the use of commercial images Rosenquist and Harnett are both able to inspire different sentiments.

Harnett and Rosenquist, even though working almost a century apart, have similar goals: to make us think about what we are seeing. William James, in Principles of Psychology (1890), said, “ Whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real; whenever an object so appeals to us that we turn to it, accept it, fill our mind with it, or practically take account of it, so far it is real for us and we believe it.” Whichever situation pertains to the beholder, the tricking of the mind and eye that Harnett uses to confound and bewilder his viewer, or the conflict Rosenquist felt about commercialism and war. Both artists had a story they wanted to share with the spectator and their narration falls into similar parameters of disillusionment.

Works Cited:

Roth, Moira “The Aesthetic of Indifference” Artforum XV: 13 (Nov 1997): 46-53.

Paul Staiti, “Illusionism, Trompe L’Oeil, and the Perils of Viewership,” in William M. Harnett (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1992): 31-48.


This essay has been edited for length and clarity, but the substance of Julie’s argument has not been changed.


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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