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, Jennifer Johnson considers the changes in Rosenquist’s work—and thus in his historical touchstones—over time.
It can be argued that every artist throughout history has been influenced by the times they lived in, and therefore personify those influences in physical form. Then, there is James Rosenquist. As “The Aesthetic of Indifference,” an essay by Moira Roth, points out, artists of the 1950s and 60s increasingly became neutral, disenchanted with the world around them. It is around this time that the work in Rosenquist’s show at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art begins. In Dog Descending A Staircase (1979) and moving through to Geometry of Fire (2011) the viewer might be completely lost if not for the artist’s commentary provided next to the pieces.
Dog Descending A Staircase was created in the late 70s, but it doesn’t directly illustrate any of the turmoil or struggle of the American political and economic state of that time. Dog Descending A Staircase seems to purposely ignore the major historical events of 1979 and instead focus on the pop culture trope of the family unit, which without the required commentary, is shrouded in symbolism and ambiguity. Similarly, if one wishes to find direct commentary about the cultural or political scene of 2011 in Geometry of Fire, they will be equally disappointed. In fact, as Rosenquist’s work progresses, it becomes increasing ambiguous in subject and historical context.
According to the exhibition text, Dog Descending A Staircase challenges the idea of the 1950s household construction of a perfect housewife and the hardworking husband. The symbolic images in Dog Descending A Staircase of a metal spool, a dog, and a doll (from left to right) supposedly represent “Man’s Work,” “The Man,” and “The Woman.” The idea of the “nuclear family” has a long history in American art: two paintings by an anonymous artist from 1674, for example, John Freake and Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, illustrate a wealthy tradesman and his wife and child.
The paintings of John, Elizabeth, and Baby Mary Freake comment on the wealth and status of the family in question, and so we can begin to draw connections from a painting created in 1674 to one painted in 1979. Many political, economical, and cultural upheavals occurred in the 1970s, yet Rosenquist focuses on the fading hallmark of the nuclear family of the 1950s. The doll can be understood as the “perfect” housewife and of the ideals of little girls growing up to become the perfect fantasy housewife that their doll toys dictate they should become. The downward direction of the dog, descending the stairs, could symbolize how the “strong, stable, overly confident” husband stereotype was fading. And finally, the steel roll could symbolize the rise in mechanical and scientific industry, but the struggle for men, who were intimidated by this technology, to find their proper place in it.
In the Freake-Gibbs paintings, the viewer is provided a direct portrait of John Freake and his wife and child. These paintings are, in essence, meant to show off John Freake’s wealth and success as a trade merchant. His wife is adorned with fine clothing, expensive jewelry, and exotic furniture. Baby Mary is held upright on display, and both wife and child are understood to be an extension and asset of John Freake’s wealth and success. John Freake himself is adorned in luxurious felt and lace, as well as well-crafted jewelry. A 17th-century viewer, and arguably a 21st-century viewer, would see John Freake as a wealthy, successful, and respectable businessman. In a modern sense, this family could be understood as a 17th century “nuclear family”, a term which describes the cookie-cutter ideal for the family model of the 1950s.
It is significant, too, that John Freake is not represented along with his wife and child—just as Rosenquist “blocks off” each of his items. This is perhaps intentional, intended to explain the still present gender gap in the 1970s, as John Freake would have been understood in opposition to—and even as the owner of—his wife and child.
In comparison to Dog Descending A Staircase, Geometry of Fire reveals a growth in the ambiguity of Rosenquist’s subjects, along with a consistent indifference to the historical context of the time in which the work was created. Geometry of Fire showcases the uncontrollable nature of fire and how nature, even with all of our scientific understanding, will never been fully in mankind’s control. This can be contrasted with The Artist In His Museum (1822), a painting by Charles Willson Peale. In it, Peale showcases his museum and his vast knowledge for science and nature. His museum displays perfectly controlled scientific environments of taxidermied animals that invite the viewer in to educate themselves on the wonders of nature. Even though the “old” and the “new” approach similar subjects in context, Rosenquist’s work in no way directly approaches these subjects.
Geometry of Fire (2011) commands the room as an immense, multiple structured painting depicting a variety of non-objective forms and colors all divided in a geometric fashion. This immense structure is a representation of the chaos of nature, shaped by the artist’s personal experience with his studio falling prey to a destructive fire. The artist posits that even with all of our advances in technology and scientific understanding, nature will always be somewhat out of our control. This chaos is illustrated as swirling, non-objective forms that the artist attempts to “control” by dividing the composition into diagonally geometric shapes.
In Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist In His Museum, the viewer is ushered into Peale’s vast museum to partake in scientific understanding through a highly controlled environment. Peale’s museum is constructed from dozens of diorama boxes, showing a taxidermy animal in its “natural” environment. Whereas Rosenquist’s painting and experience with fire insists that nature cannot be controlled, Peale’s painting and museum display cases beg to differ.
Rosenquist’s painting is huge. So huge in fact, that it is actually constructed out of a series of smaller canvases that the artist has place together like that of a jigsaw puzzle. Where Peale’s piece is nowhere near as large as Rosenquist, it could be argued that perhaps the museum depicted in the piece is just as intimidating. To a 19th-century audience, the experience of viewing Peale’s vast collection of artwork, taxidermied animals, and controlled environments must have been just as intimidating as a 21st-century viewer surely finds Rosenquist’s immense tribute to nature and science. While Peale’s piece celebrates man’s dominance and understanding of science, Rosenquist’s celebrates nature’s continual triumph over man.
Yet, again, Rosenquist fails to directly comment on any historical event during the 21st century. Peale’s piece plainly illustrates the effect of The Enlightenment and the demanding fascination with scientific and intellectual inquiry. Rosenquist’s piece is ambiguous in both form and context, and still solidly remains indifferent to comment on any political or cultural event in the 21st century. Although Rosenquist’s work evolves in its ambiguity of form, the ambiguity and indifference to context remains consistent.
Roth, Moira. “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Artforum XVI/3 (Nov. 1977): 46-53.
Jennifer’s essay has been edited for length and clarity, but her argument has not been altered.