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If you like James Rosenquist's story, you might also like:
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James Rosenquist

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James Rosenquist
James Rosenquist
Profile of James Rosenquist Biography of James Rosenquist Interview with James Rosenquist James Rosenquist Photo Gallery

James Rosenquist Biography

Pop Art Master

James Rosenquist Date of birth: November 29, 1933

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  James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist Biography Photo
James Albert Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in the heart of the Great Plains. The vast distances, with their deep perspectives and the long, unbroken horizon made a powerful impression on his visual imagination, and from an early age he drew easily. His parents moved to Minneapolis when he was nine, and he continued to draw, although he had little formal exposure to fine art in his early years.

While still in junior high school, he won a scholarship to the Minneapolis School of Art, and began to consider a career as an artist, but he still had little idea what form that would take. After high school, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota, and began to seriously study the history of Western painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He found work in the summers, painting commercial signs on water tanks and grain elevators throughout the Upper Midwest, often traveling alone, and taking in the odd juxtaposition of advertising images and logos and the changing landscape of rural America in the early 1950s. He continued to work as a billboard painter in Minneapolis throughout the year.

In 1955, he won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York City, and made his way to Manhattan, the center of an international art scene dominated by the school of abstract impressionism, led by a heroic generation of insurgent creators such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Rosenquist studied with a number of modern masters, including the German exile George Grosz, whose mordant satires of German society between the wars stood at a distant remove from the non-representational abstraction of the New York school.

James Rosenquist Biography Photo
From all of these influences, Rosenquist had formed the ambition to make a unique and personal statement in art, but first he had to find a way to make a living and once again went to work painting billboards, high above Times Square. He absorbed the industrial techniques employed by the old hands to work on this giant scale, and carried large quantities of unused paint back to his own small studio. When he took the colors he had used to render beer, spaghetti and movie stars in the giant billboards and tried to apply them to his own canvases, he found himself returning to the techniques and imagery of advertising, but applying them to very different purposes. After surviving a terrifying fall from a scaffold high above the streets of New York, Rosenquist gave up his billboard job to devote himself to his own art full time. In 1960, he produced the first of a series of major works employing the imagery of advertising art in a fragmented, provocative way that inevitably raised questions about America's consumer culture.

From his loft studio on a narrow old street called Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, Rosenquist mingled with the painters who were his neighbors: Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Like Rosenquist, Johns had moved away from the pure abstraction and improvisational freedom of abstract expressionism into a more rigorous style, incorporating recognizable motifs form American culture. In the early '60s, Rosenquist's work was featured in influential group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Along with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, he was identified in the press as a leading light in a new movement known as Pop Art.

Rosenquist's work drew the interest of a number of notable collectors, and he soon moved to a larger studio on Broome Street, in the neighborhood now known as SoHo. He began to incorporate found materials such as barbed wire, plastic and even an automated conveyor belt into his increasingly elaborate constructions. The architect Philip Johnson commissioned Rosenquist to create a 20-by-20-foot mural for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, and Rosenquist's work began to draw national attention.

James Rosenquist Biography Photo
In his new work space, Rosenquist undertook his most ambitious project to date. F-111 is ten feet high and 86 feet wide; it was first exhibited wrapped around three walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery on the Upper East Side in Rosenquist's first solo exhibition. It depicts an F-111 fighter plane, a controversial new aircraft already regarded as a costly boondoggle by critics of Pentagon spending, deftly interwoven with images of assorted consumer products. "My plan," he says, "was to sell the picture in fragments, so that collectors who bought pieces of the picture would be acquiring a souvenir of an object that they had already paid for with their taxes." As it happened, a single collector bought the entire set of panels and launched it on a tour of the world's art museums. Rosenquist's fame spread across Europe, and he became of one the best-known ambassadors of American art. Many read political meaning into Rosenquist's work, but for the most part, he distanced himself from overt political involvement, although he was briefly arrested while participating in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York City in 1972.

During the 1970s, Rosenquist continued to pursue his interest in unconventional materials and site-specific installations, with more wraparound canvases, with paintings on polyester film, and on reflective panels in an installation wreathed in dry ice fog. With his reputation no longer limited to the New York art world, Rosenquist began dividing his time between studio spaces in New York and Florida. In 1973, he began construction of vast studio spaces in Aripeka, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, to accommodate his ever-growing work, including murals for Florida's state capitol building in Tallahassee. Rosenquist's reputation made him a prominent advocate for the arts in American life. After lobbying persuasively for federal protection of artists' rights, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the National Council on the Arts.

James Rosenquist Biography Photo
Rosenquist's creation of the massive (17- by 46-foot) painting Star Thief was documented for a 1981 LIFE magazine story, "Evolution of a Painting." The finished work was selected for the concourse of Miami International Airport but was rejected by one of the participating airlines, amid a storm of controversy. The work would later be acquired by the Museum Ludwig, in Cologne, Germany. Throughout the '80s, Rosenquist continued to paint and exhibit large-scale works with imaginative, provocative titles, including: Four New Clear Women; The Persistence of Electrical Nymphs in Space; and Flowers, Fish and Females for the Four Seasons (originally created for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, it would later be acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In 1986, his historic painting, F-111, was sold by the estate of its original owner for $2.09 million, the highest price paid to that time for one of Rosenquist's works.

James Rosenquist on "Being An Artist" in
his Aripeka, Florida studio, March 1991.

In the early 1990s, Rosenquist was the subject of major retrospective exhibitions in newly post-Soviet Russia and in Spain, where he was later decorated for his services to universal culture. He has since been decorated by the governments of France, Italy and Japan. The end of the decade saw him initiating two major series of paintings, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist and Speed of Light. While continuing to produce his signature large works and murals, he maintained side practices in lithography, printmaking, sculpture and collage. In the first decade of the 21st century, many of these were collected in book form. Rosenquist himself has been the subject of a number of documentary films, and was featured in two public television series, The Shock of the New and The Empire of the Signs: American Visions. The year 2006 saw the exhibition in Basel, Switzerland of Rosenquist's monumental work, Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Eleanor Roosevelt.

James Rosenquist Biography Photo
As he entered the sixth decade of a staggeringly productive and influential career, Rosenquist continued to produce at a great pace. This interview with the Academy of Achievement was conducted in 1991, shortly after his return from Russia, as the country was just emerging from Communist rule. To artists around the world, Rosenquist's creations have exemplified a clear-eyed and exuberant celebration of the free imagination.

Rosenquist's home and studios in Aripeka were destroyed by a wildfire in April 2009. Fifteen recently completed canvases which were about to be shipped to his New York were lost in the fire, along with his extensive archives. A small guest house survived the fire and Rosenquist planned to remain on the property. He shared his reflections on his long career in an acclaimed autobiography published later that year, Painting Below Zero: Notes On a Life in Art.

This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:25 EDT
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