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Interview with James Rosenquist on his month in Manhattan

Four exhibitions devoted to the Pop pioneer open this November, including a retrospective at the Guggenheim

Let us not forget that the “Pop” in Pop Art stands for “popular” and that art’s popularity can wax and wane with vertiginous speed. Yet Pop still remains a hot topic, its theoretical dimensions and practical tactics highly resonant in today’s media-saturated America. James Rosenquist, like every other Pop artist, has long denied any such movement or his own involvement, and his career trajectory has certainly superseded all likely labels, his vision expanding along with his materials, media and financial means to reach gargantuan proportions. Now we can measure ourselves against the magnitude of the man as Manhattan declares November official Rosenquist month. There is not only the long awaited retrospective at the Guggenheim, but also a pair of stupendously large paintings at AXA Gallery, “Joystick” and “Through the eye of the needle to the anvil”, both 17 x 46 feet. Meanwhile, Robert Miller Gallery has hired a big space in Chelsea to mount a concurrent show of recent semi-abstract paintings; most enjoyably of all, there is the chance to re-experience Rosenquist’s 1969-70 installation, “Horizon: home sweet home”, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, and at the Jacobson Howard Gallery there is an exhibition of the artist’s collages.

The Art Newspaper spoke to the artist on the eve of his Manhattan exhibitions.

The Art Newspaper: How does it feel seeing such a huge body of your work all over New York?

James Rosenquist: Well, I had my first retrospective at the National Gallery of Ottawa in 1967 and I’ve had other retrospectives in Cologne and Chicago, but New York is the place. In 1991, I had a huge show in Moscow and the insurance for the whole damn show was only $58,000. [Guggenheim director] Thomas Krens asked me to have this show six years ago, when the economy was down; then there was the tragedy of the World Trade Center, so now insurance prices are sky high and the paintings have come from Europe each with its own individual courier. I look at these paintings of mine with these couriers, and it’s so funny that I sold them back then for $750, or maybe $1,000, and now they’re insured for $1 million. That’s really hilarious!

TAN: Presumably you have not seen some of these works for years?

JR: Some I’ve not seen for decades and I’m amazed they’re in pretty good shape, because museums and people have really taken good care of them. Also, I use British oil paints that just last longer. At the 1963 World’s Fair in New York Philip Johnson asked me to do a big outdoor painting. I tested various brands of paint to see how they would stand up outside; some yellows turned to brown over a few years. But Windsor & Newton stand up years later, they are still bright against wind and sand. So I have a limited palate now of just nine Windsor & Newton colours and one Dutch, and that’s it.

TAN: Up close the texture of your paintings can be very lush, but in reproduction they look as if they could almost be done by spray can.

JR: When I was young and hadn’t yet seen any Old Master paintings except in reproduction, I hitchhiked to the Art Institute in Chicago and realised for the first time that these were smeary, sloppy, heavily brushed paintings. They certainly didn’t look like that in the photographs I’d seen, and that was a real revelation. As I tell young people, some of the finest paintings in the world were done merely with raw minerals mixed in oil with hair from the back of a pig’s ear, with pig bristle. Some of the very finest drawings in the Albertina in Austria are made just with burnt wood on parchment. An amazing illusion can still be created from that simplicity.

TAN: Much contemporary visual culture is related to the ultra-flat surface of the computer or TV screen, that digital one dimension.

JR: I went to see a friend of mine from Beverly Hills who makes commercials in his studio. He was digitally correcting images, frame by frame. Two weeks later, I was in the Louvre looking at those two Vermeers, “The astronomer” and “The geographer”, both the same size. I look and look at these things for two hours, I see all the different styles Vermeer used, he didn’t stick with one style. These paintings could not be altered digitally, no matter how small the pixels were, you simply couldn’t do it digitally. Vermeer was way ahead of us, even back then.

TAN: The more new media are introduced, the more valid painting seems.

JR: Oh, indeed. Painting still has great validity. All over the world there are many commercial-art studios using computers and their work all has the footprint of those computers. I met Douglas Trumbull in Los Angeles, who did the special effects for “2001: a space Odyssey”, but his inventions were very mechanical, like a spilt-screen on 70mm film. In Hollywood there are many genius inventions which are very mechanical, almost table-top photography. In “Close encounters” they had these luminous clouds, that came from the studio pouring gallons of milk in a big water tank, simulating clouds. I really get a kick out of that sort of thinking, that invention, not just punching things into a computer.

TAN: Much of your work is directly political, as with the F-111 painting. This critique of American thinking seems very relevant now.

JR: I always thought money in our government would be spent on think-tanks for reading the Koran, instead of tanks for blowing people up. Iraq is such a different culture, I think we are using the wrong weapons over there. We should be using armour and swords, because Osama bin Laden keeps quoting the West as crusaders in the 13th century. Their mind-set is somewhere else. The real bummer is the arms dealers putting weapons in the hands of some African kid, who’ll use them to show off.

TAN: Do you feel any nostalgia for that optimistic America of the 1950s?

JR: Whatever I did came from my life experience and my background. I was fortunate to grow up in the US during the 1940s and 1950s, a big boom time when every war veteran was supposed to have a house, a car, even a plane! I could go to the supermarket or go see movies and see extreme exterior colour. In Russia, they didn’t have that. In Leningrad in 1965, I saw a truck-load of potatoes go by in these sad cardboard grey boxes, then in Stockholm I saw bright red apples zoom past and it was like a blur of colour. Even recently in Moscow there was a big backlash against Snickers bars, they advertised them so profusely, and people were defacing the ads. Russians are very bright, but not visually literate. I had two Russians working for me in Florida, and we went to a birthday party with a local rock band swearing “motherfucka” et cetera, and the young Russian said, “You would think they would have better poetry than that.”

TAN: In 1957 you were working in Times Square which seems almost innocent in its signage back then compared to how it looks today.

JR: It’s terrible! In my time, Times Square was empty much of the time, in fact, Manhattan was practically empty. I had five-room apartments for $31 a month. Times Square just had the Astor Hotel. It was a very pleasant time and it was kind of quiet, apart from the matinee hour when all the old ladies came with their fur coats. Now it’s all Disney culture, which I hate.

TAN: All your work right from the beginning seems collage-based.

JR: Collage still remains very contemporary because of the shock and quickness of juxtaposition, of very odd things thrown together. And what does that mean? It means danger! For instance, you almost get hit by a taxi and you see a man eating a sandwich in the cab, while you’re looking at some young woman’s legs. People ask me about my Ford and spaghetti painting and I say it’s like a tri-focal vision, you see the front of a car, a woman whispering and a field of Italo-American spaghetti.

TAN: How do you feel about younger artists like David Salle or Jeff Koons, some of whose work has an obvious debt to your own?

JR: That’s what people say. I once did an abstraction of Picasso’s “Guernica”, and thought why should I do that? Then I realised he also copied or changed Velázquez. So I think with David Salle, let’s wait and see what he does in 10 years time and let’s see if it still refers to my work. It seems to me like he’s still in school. Jeff Koons owes a lot to Jasper Johns: everything starts from somewhere. Johns did his ale cans, one in solid bronze and one half-bronze, like a drunk who picks up a can and knows it’s half full because it’s half heavy, so then Koons does the solid bronze life-preserver.

TAN: You also made a small number of sculptures in rare metals.

JR: I made solid-gold garbage cans, one of them is in the Guggenheim show. That came from a friend of mine who got stoned on peyote, and thought he saw Greek drawings on Bowery garbage cans. It was also a reference to the Metropolitan Museum buying the Kalix Crater, for over $1 million; they deaccessioned what I thought were some more interesting works to buy this crater. So I etched drawings from the Kalix Crater on these solid-gold cans. There’s about 16 ounces of gold in each can, they’re little hammered-out sculptures.

TAN: How do you use drawing as opposed to photography?

JR: I don’t know if there’s any opposition. For me, drawing is like thinking in short hand. You can draw on a train or plane, it’s like shorthand to prepare for a larger picture.

TAN: A Boucher drawing show has just opened at the Frick, and one could see a similar sensibility in Boucher or Watteau to your own flower paintings.

JR: My flower paintings had to do with a long series of ideas that came from the space programme. When it started, they could send fruit flies, monkeys or humans into space, they could keep them alive but couldn’t stop them going crazy. I actually met the guy who designed the patches of the astronauts, most of whom were Navy men. When they went up there, they started bringing dolls, golf clubs, all sorts of stuff, to remind them of their life on earth. The question occurred to me, how would young people like to live in the future? Will they live like little lambs in a meadow or in a hi-tech stainless-steel apartment as was fashionable a few years ago? The lifestyle of a New Yorker is very different to that of someone living in the jungle of Florida. In Florida, people could seem integrated into all the flora and fauna, while in New York they seemed integrated into machines. It’s like when Warhol said, “I want to become a machine”.

TAN: Your work has great ambition, not just in its scale, but also in setting yourself technical goals.

JR: I don’t do paintings any more unless they’re a challenge. I’m not a commercial artist: if I was I could make a lot of money. I think Jeff Koons might be a commercial artist, that manner of having assistants paint his paintings through a very complex system, it seems really strange. It seems like a child who can’t learn how to speak but can learn sign language, it’s like a roundabout manner of accomplishing something. I try to do painting and prints now which are very difficult and that is the only reason for doing them.

TAN: There was also that series of wrapped doll paintings you showed at Leo Castelli’s.

JR: The idea was that when a child goes in a store at Christmas and says, “I want that, I want that!” Beauty is in the eye of beholder. I took maybe 700 different photographs of dolls wrapped in plastics. I didn’t alter them very much, I painted them very much like the photographs. To some people they are really ugly. Some of the most sophisticated collectors didn’t see it and others really got it, that was a surprise. Some of the dolls were sweet, some were ugly. Some people bought sweet ones; Michael Douglas, the actor, bought a sinister one. But they were from reality, they weren’t visions of any kind. They were about that sort of basic child’s attraction.

TAN: Could that be a theme, a sense of attraction, of desire, for the paintings themselves, but at the same time something else a little darker or dangerous?

JR: Okay, have you ever heard of Jan Streep? His relatives were diamond merchants in Amsterdam; he was murdered, stabbed 20 times, but I liked the guy. He came to my first show and bought a painting, even though others were telling him, “Don’t! These paintings stink!” But he said, “You know why I like them? Because he hates to paint them so much.” He’s partly right. Because I was so sick and tired of painting advertisements; I wasn’t celebrating it at all. You know, some critics say Pop artists love their subject matter…Bullshit! I just hated it. In 1957, I was working for General Outdoor Advertising having to paint this big whisky bottle above every candy store in Brooklyn. I got up to about number 50 and was so tired of doing the same shine on every bottle. There was a text on its label, “This spirit is made from finest grains”, and instead I wrote “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow”. I painted 147 of the damn things. The other sign painters didn’t know what I was up to. We were once on the Expressway, painting a huge billboard all grey. I was 23, the other sign-painters were old guys. Without them knowing, I put in a little bit of green paint, some red, some yellow, into each of their pots. When we walked away, I said “Hey, you guys, look back there!” It had this beautiful patchwork effect, it reminds me now of a Jasper Johns. The other sign painters went, “Oh no! It must be some sort of weird chemistry! We’ll all get fired!”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'James Rosenquist takes Manhattan'