Thursday, November 26, 2009

Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist

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Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist was one of the early pop artists. He has an almost perfect pop biography--midwestern boy, learns the fine art of painting billboards, moves to New York and wows the swells with his paintings of jet fighters and spaghetti. His new autobiography doesn't challenge this capsule biography, but it enriches it a lot.

I think for people my age and younger, the weird thing about Rosenquist's story was that he was a billboard painter. This is a profession that doesn't exist anymore, and one could be forgiven for being surprised that it ever existed. The idea that it was cost-effective to hire an artist to paint your billboard seems amazing today. But apparently it was common at one time. Rosenquist got his start painting billboards on the road in the midwest, including many in Minneapolis. These required a combination of sign-painting skills (he had to paint large display fonts) and more-or-less realistic painting. But beyond that was the skill of painting big--not being able to see the whole while you are painting, yet coming out of it with an intelligible image. Obviously this is a skill that mural painters have always had to master. On top of all this, he had to learn to paint it quick.

He had artistic ambitions beyond billboard painting, so he moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. He continued to paint in New York, joining a billboard painter's union, painting bottles of booze on the sides of buildings all over Brooklyn. He made a good living doing this, and in Painting Below Zero, he never hints that he might have thought of this as a job without a future (as it most certainly was). His desire to leave billboard painting behind had everything to do with his artistic ambitions and nothing to do with the fact that billboard painting was about to go the way of the dodo.

His fine art painting in this period (the 50s) was abstract. He worshiped de Kooning and Franz Kline, and for serious contemporary artists of the time, that was what was in the air. But he also new that he wanted to make his own mark in his own style. But he started meeting a younger group of painters who in time would revolt against abstract expressionism. It started with Ray Johnson (who really seems like he was a "connector" in that world), and got to be friends with people like Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, and others. When he was looking for loft space to paint, he met Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It was their work that showed Rosenquist a way out of Abstract Expressionism.

The interesting thing about Rosenquist was that he used his billboard experience extensively in his art. I'm not just talking about the large scale of his paintings and the "creamy" painting surface--although those are important. He wanted viewers to overwhelmed by the images, and to see them in fragmentary ways, like he did when he painted a billboard. Hence the overlapping, truncated images in his work. This is one reason why reproductions of his work are so inadequate--they make all the fragments instantly visable and comprehensible. A full-size Rosenquist painting is virtually impossible to see all at once, unless it's in a huge room. And that's intentional.

Ironically, he didn't even meet the two biggest pop artists, Warhol and Lichtenstein, until 1964. This reuse of banal imagery was just in the air. Rosenquist doesn't even quite see it that way--he always had an emotional connection with what he was painting. Obviously there was irony in his art, but that wasn't the main point. He loved the objects he painted (or hated them when he got around to painting F-111).

What I like about this kind of book is the description of the social scene in which the artist operated. How did people meet; how does a kid from Minneapolis find other artists? How do they entertain themselves (lots of drinking, apparently). Rosenquist is quite amusing in talking about the bars they hung in. It was OK to hang at the Cedar Tavern or Max's Kansas City, but if a bunch of painters showed up at Elaine's, they might end up getting booted. The centrality of drinking is kind of intense. I think it damaged a lot of creative people at that time--de Kooning certainly. And for an artist to "network" with his peers, he had to drink.

After Rosenquist moves away from New York, his life is a lot less interesting and more stable. He still has his friends (he was very close to Rauschenberg his whole life), but now he had a family and property and success. He still was doing big bold work. Now he is one of the survivors of his generation, and his memories are welcome. Painting Below Zero was a thoroughly entertaining book.

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