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, Lindsey Chancellor considers how Rosenquist’s political content changed over time even as his interest in beauty remained a powerful presence in his work.
The art of James Rosenquist presents an interesting illustration of the ideas permeating the culture of art throughout the twentieth century. Rosenquist’s career covers a long span of time and much of his work fits into a time period classified by art historian Moira Roth as the “Aesthetic of Indifference.” According to Roth, this aesthetic was a result of McCarthy-era politics and suspicion (47). However, classifying all art produced during this time as reactive to McCarthy policies is overly simplistic. Like all artists, the work of James Rosenquist is a product of the time it was produced, but it also provides insight into Rosenquist’s personality and private motivations.
A close examination of Rosenquist’s work shows some of the concerns of Americans living during the Cold War, but it also demonstrates Rosenquist’s personal reaction to these events. Rosenquist’s Circles of Confusion I (1965-66) was created during the period in which pop art was popular. As Roth states pop art usually concerned a “Middle American world of affluence and materialism” (53). This can be seen clearly in Circles of Confusion I. The GE logo is reminiscent of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. There is clearly a fascination with the logo itself and what it represents in American culture. The mid-1960s were a time of consumerism, as Roth points out, but it was also a time of deep social questioning, as the Civil Rights movement was reaching a climax of conflict with larger society. This movement, along with the emphasis on consumerism and conspicuous consumption created an interesting dichotomy. As Rosenquist is exploring this relationship in Circles of Confusion I, it is clear that he does not have any answers. All he can do is highlight the beauty and ambiguity of the moment.
The piece illustrates the American dream, but suggests that this dream is unattainable or at the very least, blemished. The viewer has no doubt about the brand in the image, but it cannot be seen or understood clearly. In this way Rosenquist is making a broad statement about how Americans understand the American dream. They think they know what it is, but with attention to detail it makes less sense and becomes an abstract idea rather than an attainable goal.
Throughout his career Rosenquist engaged with a variety of subjects. This variety creates very different works of art and suggests different motivations throughout his career. Sky Hole (1989) depicts two water lilies as well as some abstract shapes and figures. The emphasis on the aesthetic of flowers in Sky Hole continues a long tradition of painting flowers. The image itself is comparable to Maria Oakey Dewing’s A Bed of Poppies (1909).
Both Dewing and Rosenquist view flowers as a subject appropriate for professional artists, and this is evident in the amount of detail each artist puts into their respective paintings. The subject of flowers is interesting because it allow artists to explore the abstraction of natural objects. Dewing painted the garden with a flat style and bright colors. The painting is abstract, but also possesses an incredibly realistic depiction. Rosenquist’s flowers are an even flatter style, but it is still evident that they are the first things to catch the eye of the viewer. While there is no doubt that Dewing’s subject is a bed of flowers, Rosenquist’s subject is slightly more ambiguous. He seems to be using flowers as a starting point for a more abstract expression. The flowers are models for the less-definable shapes above and below, and he uses the organic forms to guide the shape of the burst of light in the foreground.
Rosenquist and Dewing each make an argument about the artistic value of flowers. They are not simply pretty things to enjoy, but they provide an example for how to view and recreate an image of beauty. This argument sets apart Rosenquist’s piece, and to a certain extent the entirety of his later work. This work is about beauty and the exploration of forms of beauty—it is no longer about consumerism or indifference. His exploration of beauty explains more about his personal engagement with art than it does about his criticism or skepticism of American commercialism.
Rosenquist does not just show American ideals, he questions them. Rosenquist’s and others’ attempt to understand the world around them is to a certain extent the struggle of all artists, and the result is the art that they create. Rosenquist’s art was indeed a reaction to the Cold War, but it is also a reaction to all of the life events he experienced. His art is as personal as it is political and because of this relationship, it is impossible to fully consider either factor without accounting for the other.
Roth, Moira. “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Artforum XVI/3 (Nov. 1977): 46-53.