Rosenquist in the Arts – A Student’s Review

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, Kylee Riseling considers the ways in which Rosenquist’s collaged images speak to a longer history of arrangement as a form of visual communication in American art.

James Rosenquist is a prominent figure in the Pop Art movement. The curator of the exhibition, “James Rosenquist: Illustrious Works on Paper, Illuminating Paintings,” defines Rosenquist as a Pop Artist, categorizing him with other famous artists of the time such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. It is difficult to interpret his artwork based on one style however, because it moves away from traditional pop art and takes a turn towards abstraction. Viewers in the galleries are sure to pick up on the transitions his work made as Rosenquist grew as an artist.

At the beginning of his career, it is clear that Rosenquist had a connection with consumerism. The earliest works seen in the gallery focus on popular culture in the form of man-made objects, using imagery heavily influenced by advertising. His career as a commercial painter influenced the scale, content, and style of his works. Painting billboards taught him how to arrange imagery in a space and also how to make multiple images fit seamlessly together on a large, sometimes monumental canvases. Rosenquist moved his focus to abstract artwork shortly after losing two friends to the dangers of commercial painting. The style we see most heavily in the artwork he makes today is certainly considered more abstract than his works based on consumerism, although hints of popular culture still shine through. One thing is for certain: the subject matter of all of his works encrypt a story about being an American.

Charles Willson Peale, "The Artist in His Museum," 1822. Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in His Museum,” 1822. Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Just as Rosenquist tells stories about American culture through his work, so do many famous American artists, although changes in medium, context, and subject matter over time are clear. The Artist In His Museum, painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1822, gives us a glimpse of where American life was headed in the 1800s. This piece tells us a story about abundant discovery in our early history, involving the recognition of many new species as well as uncovering the bones of ancient species. Peale is standing proudly in his Museum, holding the curtain up so that the viewer can get a glimpse into what was presently a time of great exploration.

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).

Just as Peale reveals cultural information about his time to his viewers, so does Rosenquist. As a pop artist, he focused on popular culture and in his own way displays our modernist ways with great abstraction. Works such as Dog Descending a Staircase give us a glance into America as a society in the 1980s. Although it is not clear what the print is portraying at first glance, under further investigation one finds that the piece symbolizes the modern American household at the time.

The three images in this piece give us a sense of confusion because they are juxtaposed in an abstract manner. The dog, which is the centerpiece of the work, is a reference to “the man of the house.” This dog is descending a staircase in what appears to be a very traditional style American home. To the right of the dog, we see a doll with blonde hair, which was a very popular children’s toy at the time. This doll symbolizes “the woman of the house.” Finally, we look at the third image, which is seen on the far left. It is apparent that this is some sort of machinery, as we see a metallic glimmer coming off of the object while a gear is turning. This machinery is meant to convey “the man’s business.”

After understanding the meaning behind the piece, the viewer can clearly see that Rosenquist is telling a story about home life in the ‘80s, and the very specific gender stereotypes of the time. He has taken three objects from the time and juxtaposed them together in a unique and abstract fashion to tell us a story. Although his methods are very much different than the straightforward portrait of Peale in his Museum, viewers are able to pick up stories of each work’s current time period.

Over many decades, new forms of artwork are bound to develop. From traditional to highly abstracted works of art, American art tells us a story about our culture at any given moment. Rosenquist is certainly no exception. He has produced a new way for viewers to look at our lives in this highly industrialized society we live in. Rather than being blatantly obvious about his subject matter, or turning to nature as the artists of the 1800s did, he asks his viewers to question what they are looking at. It was important to Rosenquist that society should question everything; and perhaps these questions stem from the artist’s wish to distance himself from our modern, materialistic society.


Kylee’s essay has been edited for length and clarity, but the substance of her argument has not been altered.


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.
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