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 This week, Stacy Bush considers the interactions between Rosenquist’s images, titles, and art-historical references.
Even as an artist’s work becomes a product of its surroundings, the artist retains the power of choice. Rosenquist’s repeating choice of images, such as nails and spaghetti, throughout his works indicates that he created an iconographic system for himself. Rosenquist’s titles, meanwhile, guide the viewer to the subject matter and goal that he has for the work. Rosenquist uses American art history to comment on – or raise questions about – familiar and relatable topics for his viewers. Rosenquist seeks to speak to his viewers by connecting titles to the concept of an artwork, gathering found objects to create a new meaning, and expanding on historical references.
For Rosenquist, a title is an opportunity to expand the artwork before a viewer, turning a material object into a conceptual idea. This is best seen in his work with the literal title of Reification (1961). It is an oil painting on canvas, and Rosenquist added light bulbs, which once worked, to the canvas as if the whole were part of an advertisement. The bulbs appear to form the first four letters of the title, and some bulbs are missing. The majority of the paint is a yellow hue, leaving the bottom right corner to be a red color. Steel is used to help form letters with the light bulbs, but only on the red section of the canvas. “Reification” is the act or process of altering a concept into a tangible, concrete thing. Not only has Rosenquist captured the viewer’s attention through the title, but he has also asked for the viewer’s insight in connecting the title to the work. The word and concept ‘reify’ is in ‘reification’ as the viewer takes note of the title and work together.
Another analysis of an artwork by Rosenquist that works together with its title is the color lithograph/intaglio print, Dog Descending a Staircase (1980-82). Of course, before noticing the title, the viewer understands that the image is in thirds. The leftmost third appears to have a gear or pulley system in the foreground. The rightmost third is of a doll with hair pulled back nicely and a blank stare. The middle image has a black and white dog descending stairs and approaching the green background behind the doll figure. The images depicted are not together by chance, however; Rosenquist sought to bring new meaning with this unity. The three images in one print become arguably abstract—there is no presentation of an everyday, historical, or mythological scene. Still, with known ideas of the individual images, the viewer may ask what new meaning may come from their unity. The didactic label for this print in the exhibition, “James Rosenquist: Illustrious Works on Paper, Illuminating Paintings,” states that the dog represented the man of a house and the doll represented his wife. The machinery simply represents itself. Overall, the composition is what a family household consists of and depends on. The title for the work is equally, if not more, noteworthy. The title triggers historical references to the art historically knowledgeable viewer.
The title chosen is intentional by two means; the first is that the title is a direct reference to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). Although Duchamp was a French artist, he did exhibit in America. He exhibited Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) at the 1913 Armory show in New York. The paradox between the two works is that Duchamp’s painting was considered a “threat” and “un-American” to the American public (Saltz, “Cubes! The Horror!”), and Rosenquist’s painting is supposed to be an image of the American family. The second intention is thus revealed. Rosenquist wanted to represent the American family, parallel a historically shocking image, and hence provide commentary on the former. Like Duchamp, Rosenquist seeks to extend the visual into the cognitive and play with the viewer’s expectations. If Duchamp wanted viewers to be placed outside of their comfort zones, then Rosenquist used a similar technique of challenging his viewers’ own reality.
In the two works discussed in this essay, one can see that there is a direct conversation between the artist and his viewers. In giving his works such creative titles, Rosenquist has assigned a concept, goal, or direction to guide the viewer’s interpretation. Rosenquist’s works are personal creations with equally personal intentions, created for an audience to interact with on a cognitive level.
Roth, Moira. “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Artforum XVI/3. Nov. 1977. 46-53.
Saltz, Jerry “Cubes! The Horror!” New York Magazine. Apr. 1, 2012.
Stacy’s essay has been edited for length and clarity, but the substance of her argument has not been altered.