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. All semester, I’ve been featuring their work in celebration of the show. If you haven’t seen it yet—or even if you have!—I hope that their ideas give you some background and enrich your enjoyment and understanding of this fantastic exhibition. This week, Karleigh Clanin considers Rosenquist’s portraits, both metaphorical and literal, in their broader historical context.
According to Sarah C. Bancroft, curator of the Rosenquist exhibition at the Postal Plaza Gallery, the selection of artworks on view “demonstrates his facility and prowess in all media and elucidates the arc of this seminal American artist’s multifarious career.” Throughout his career, Rosenquist has produced many works of art that relate to early historical works from other American artists, creating lithographs and paintings that depict popular imagery and everyday objects.
In the lithograph Off the Continental Divide, he shares his life story using nails, an open book, and stairs. The nails represent Rosenquist’s one night stay in jail, after protesting against the Vietnam War. The position of the nails, in groups of five with one nail laying diagonally across the other four, represent time, which he saw carved into the walls in the jail cell. A book placed wide open upside down, could represent the different chapters in his life, or the split down the middle of the continental divide. The purple stairs might represent his decision to either move east or west. Rosenquist describes this lithograph as “a metaphor for my past life and my future: yesterday, today, and tomorrow…One way or another you leave your home, you slip off the Continental Divide, which goes east or west.” This idea of using objects to tell your life story is also found in American art long before Rosenquist’s time. Objects such as clothing, weapons, books, and animals were placed in paintings that were used to portray power, wealth, and gender roles.
One of Rosenquist’s most famous paintings is President Elect. Painted with oil on Masonite, this painting reaches almost eight feet by twelve feet and was created between 1960 and 1964. On the left is a portrait of John F. Kennedy, followed by a woman’s hand breaking off a piece of cake from a slice of cake, and a portion of an automobile. Rosenquist explains, “The face was from Kennedy’s campaign poster. I was very interested at that time in people who advertised themselves. What did they put on an advertisement of themselves? So that was his face. And his promise was half a Chevrolet and a piece of stale cake.” It could be argued that Rosenquist used this for a sort of advertisement in Kennedy’s campaign, by showing the face of Kennedy and what he had promised Americans for voting for him.
Advertisement can also be seen in John Singleton Copley’s, Paul Revere, of 1768. The portrait illustrates Paul Revere working on engraving a silver teapot in his workshop. Revere is portrayed as a thinker and a maker. He seems to be in deep thought about what he is going to engrave on the teapot. Copley used this painting to “[engage] these patrons’ firsthand experience with and broader interest in the practice of making to help sell his sitters’ work.” It showed that Revere took a great effort to produce the perfect products for his clients with his own hands, which was not the case. Revere actually had his workers do it as he looked over their work. Not only was Copley helping advertise Paul Revere’s silversmith work, he was also putting his paintings up in his studio to advertise his own work.
Both President Elect and Paul Revere are advertisements of some kind and although they were created almost two hundred years apart, they share the same need for advertisement. John F. Kennedy and Paul Revere are both in charge of their business and want to please the people. The Chevrolet, the stale cake, and the teapot, all represent what the people get in return for their support. One could argue that they both have to do with the government in some way. Kennedy is running for president; the teapot is a symbol of the economy. The silver comes from Mexico, the tea leaves come from Asia, the sugar comes from the Caribbean, and the teapot is made in Boston. All of these are related to the government’s control of the economy.
Lasser, Ethan W. “Selling Silver: The Business of Copley’s Paul Revere.” American Art 26.3 (2012): 26-43.
Karleigh’s essay has been edited for length and clarity, but the substance of the argument presented here has not been changed.