by John Chilver
Review of ‘James Rosenquist: A Retrospective’, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, 16 October 2003 - 25 January 2004; published in Untitled, number 32, London, Summer 2004, p70
James Rosenquist is full of good bits. And the good bits are very good. In that way he resembles Led Zeppelin: you might not want to own the albums but you’d happily sample the moments of virtuosity and exhilaration. So it is with Rosenquist’s good bits: they are fabulous, elegant and intense. Like the exquisite waterlogged boat in the otherwise embarrassing 1977 painting Sheer Line. Or the right-hand section of Industrial Cottage, also 1977, in which an image of daylight seeping around a timbered sill is implausibly but beautifully juxtaposed with an abstracted view of drill bits. It is the mark of Rosenquist’s particular skill that one experiences these wonderful moments in the first instance as light and substance, and only subsequently as painting. Walking around this show you notice how much of recent painting was long ago anticipated by Rosenquist’s highly wrought and promiscuous version of photo-painting: artists as diverse as Jeff Koons, Richard Patterson, Michel Majerus, Richard Phillips, Martin Kippenberger and, most obviously, David Salle, have all worked along avenues once travelled by James Rosenquist. That makes him sound rather important. Seeing this show I doubt that he is, except as a precedent. While the fragments in Rosenquist are captivating, the totalities – both of the oeuvre and of the individual compositions – remain unconvincing. Rosenquist’s pictures are disappointing as whole complexes. Why is that? Rosenquist’s method of composition is collage. The paintings are worked out as surprisingly small paper cuts, then squared up. He typically builds a composition through simple lateral addition of parts from left to right. And he typically conceives the part as itself a discrete image, basically a rectangle with its own interior structure. This has the unwelcome consequence that Rosenquist’s compositions – up until he uses graphic software in the 90s – show a very static, rectilinear, segmental use of montage. Rosenquist is both too restless and decorative to exploit the limitations of lateral addition, and too constricted to break up its grid logic. So the compositions are formally unsurprising. But they tend also to be iconographically predictable: their semantic juxtapositions are too often near to clichés. The 1967 painting U-Haul-It is one of his best because it keeps things formally simple but effective with its straightforward left-right sequence of three panels, and its partial symmetry of horizontal/ vertical/ horizontal. It’s a rare case of iconic parts supporting and reinterpreting each other. U-Haul-It describes the episodes of a blue-collar working day, told in three scenes. It is also an intelligently looped narrative of consumption as production. Here Rosenquist succeeds uncharacteristically by formal and iconic restraint.
Rosenquist paints big. Too big for the Guggenheim. Hence much of this travelling retrospective has been omitted, appearing in New York only in an abridged version. Not only that: the famous spiralling walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior cannot comfortably accommodate the sprawling multi-panel works. Bigness has to do with Rosenquist’s experience, at the end of the 1950s, as a commercial billboard painter. No other artist of his generation stayed so close to his commercial art practices while successfully negotiating the transition to a fine art context. Warhol, after all, shifted substantially when he moved out of advertising and illustration; indeed, is it one of the enjoyable ironies of Warhol that his successful illustration style of the 50s – replete with precious wrinkly line – came far closer to satisfying traditional fine art expectations than anything he offered as a ‘fine artist’. Rosenquist the commercial artist painted adverts for beer, cosmetics and movies, among other things. Seeing a 1957 photo of him at work on 49th Street and Broadway, one is struck by the sheer height and the physical danger. These billboards were visible simultaneously to a vast audience at street level. They are as close to broadcasting as images deprived of the technologies of telepresence can be. Their affective power – and this is equally true of the later studio paintings – has a lot to do with the pathos of a hand-made image heralding a mass-produced commodity. So Rosenquist’s practice maintained a surprising consistency when he moved into the fine art field. And in holding to this consistency, it seems that he has always clung to the hope of the mass audience that the towering billboard paintings symbolised. Just as the billboards were concerned to inform and persuade, so Rosenquist has held fast to a conception of image-making that is fundamentally didactic. Hence at the most basic level, Rosenquist is not the cool, ironic pop artist. If you don’t believe me check out his monumental (24 x 133 feet) 1998 painting titled Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Eleanor Roosevelt. This has much the same turgid earnestness as the murals of Rivera or Orozco. The oeuvre does not lack wit. But it does assume that painting is a public spectacle and didactic entertainment concerned with a kind of consciousness-raising. If that makes him sound like a pop El Lissitzky perhaps the contrast is instructive. For Rosenquist has a naïve faith that his own intentions will prevail; that painting will never short-circuit nor exceed his intentions. That faith makes him ultimately a minor artist. In Lissitzky, by contrast, there’s always the sense that consciousness-raising in art might be more like prefiguration, or an idealising rehearsal, notes for future selves: in other words, something that happens around the limits of intentionality. Rosenquist’s consciousness-raising starts as a soft-core semiotics of media image overload undertaken by the sidewalk social scientist, and develops into a more preachy unmasking of the macro-economic as it delimits and channels the realm of the personal. His criticality at best – as in MoMA’s 1964-65 painting installation F-111 – is an examined and undeceived celebration of – what else? – America. At worst, it’s ideology pretending to be ideological analysis.
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