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, Abigail Unruh examines the connections between personal experiences and broader cultural shifts in Rosenquist’s imagery, linking it to a long tradition of social commentary in the history of American art.
“I’m interested in contemporary vision-the flicker of chrome, reflections, rapid associations, quick flashes of light. Bing-Bang! I don’t do anecdotes. I accumulate experience.” This quote from James Rosenquist briefly summarizes the meaning behind his work in the exhibition “James Rosenquist: Illustrious Works on Paper, Illuminating Paintings.” When people think of “American art,” they think of art pieces that are representative of our culture, that outline who we are, and that allow us to remember historic events. Rosenquist has his own unique way of creating paintings and lithographs that allow him to connect to the history of American art. He does this by creating illustrations of popular imagery and everyday objects that were present in his own time period, using bright colors and abstraction.
James Rosenquist was an American pop artist who set his focus primarily on depicting scenes of everyday life and popular imagery using commercial art techniques. He chose imagery from photographs, advertising, and popular culture as his inspiration. His formal style changes over time, becoming increasingly abstract, less simple, and more colorful. He also gladly displays his plans and rough drafts of ideas for his paintings and lithographs in his exhibition. The exhibition “James Rosenquist: Illustrious Works on Paper, Illuminating Paintings,” charts his progress and shows the way that he connected with his contemporary audience as well as with America’s art history as a whole.
Rosenquist’s print F-111 is a wonderful representation of his connection to American art history. In this seemingly personal painting, he depicts a sense of commercialism and consumerism through the specific images he paints. He emphasizes industry through the image of the airplane. The image of the girl under the hairdryer shows gender roles at the time. The image of the explosion emphasizes that there was a war going on, and the spectacular flower wallpaper near the bottom of the painting shows a sense of beauty.
Rosenquist connects to American art history through his print Dog Descending a Staircase. This painting is sectioned off into three different parts. One part depicts a beautiful doll, one shows a dog running down a staircase, and the last shows a film reel. Each of these things means something to the society at the time this painting was made. The doll was used to represent the “woman of the house,” and the dog descending down the stairs was used to represent the “man of the house.” The reel could be interpreted as a symbol showing how men and women could be connected or “reeled” together in a household during this time period. The “man of the house” could be represented as a dog because dogs are loyal, smart, and protective of the family; which are the qualities that a man should have. The “woman of the house” could be represented by a doll because the doll has many features that show beauty and intricacy, such as its porcelain, smooth face, and its perfect makeup and hair with no flaws.
We might compare Hairdresser’s Window, painted by John Sloan in 1907, to F-111 and Dog Descending a Staircase. In Hairdresser’s Window, Sloan depicted a girl put on display to all of society, stricken with the freedom to choose what her hair color would be. This was frowned upon by people who were hoping to preserve traditional standards of feminine conduct; people who weren’t fond of the idea of the “new woman” that had expanded into the society at this time. Contradictorily, in F-111, Rosenquist is adopting, wholeheartedly, the idea of changing gender roles for women, and embraces their beauty by creating images such as the girl under the hairdryer and the extravagant flower wallpaper design. In Sloan’s painting, the hairdresser window was used as a commercial sign for advertisement and the selling of goods during this time period. Likewise, in Rosenquist’s print, he invokes the same concept of advertising by using images showing commercialism and consumerism—like the food items he chooses from advertisements selling those goods. Overall, Sloan and Rosenquist are using these artworks to support the idea of a new, liberating environment that is coming to America, and that will have an impact on society continuing on into the future.
Rosenquist is able to connect with his audience and American art history in a spectacular way by painting popular imagery and everyday objects using commercial art techniques. His works are also very personal, many of them being about his own life stories and the struggles he has overcome.
Abby’s essay has been edited for clarity and length, but the substance of her argument has not been altered.