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If you like James Rosenquist's story, you might also like:
J. Carter Brown,
Dale Chihuly,
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Philip Johnson,
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James Rosenquist

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James Rosenquist
James Rosenquist
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James Rosenquist Interview

Pop Art Master

March 18, 1991
Aripeka, Florida

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  James Rosenquist

Let's talk about F-111. How did that painting come about, and how did you decide to make it so huge?

James Rosenquist: That was kind of a culmination of a number of ideas, and one was visiting an amusement park in Texas and seeing a B-36 airplane just sitting there rusting. And then going to an amusement park that had a lot of unnatural things about it as a theme park. And then talking to Barnett Newman about "it" and about seeing something which turns out that a person, whatever one looks at, is relegated by peripheral vision -- what you see through the side of your eyes makes what you think you see, that color for instance. Or color can change other colors, according to the whole surrounding of senses of color, light, dark, everything. So that I wanted to make a room where wherever you look, that color would be that color, because everything else made it that color. And that was it. I could really set the knobs and really do that. I learned that income taxes were started by the Chinese as a donation to make a humanist donation to a community or a society. And just at that time, I met Paul Berg from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who had just come back from some combat missions in Vietnam. So the culmination of all these things. I thought of the economy that this war weapon supported in Texas and in Long Island. So that was the beginning idea to get me off the chair to do this painting. And later it was taken as a great anti-war picture, and everything. But it didn't start out that way. It was really more of how illogical it was to be an artist in this century, and this time. What a joke it was to be an artist. I mean, if one thinks that they have any power -- political power -- by being an artist or saying something or doing anything, it didn't seem to be... The artist's role in society seemed to be silly at that time.

James Rosenquist Interview Photo

James Rosenquist Interview Photo

But at the same time, as an artist you were making a political statement.

James Rosenquist: Not self-consciously, I don't think. Not at that time.

People were shocked when they first saw your art in the early '60s. It seemed to go against the grain of everything we had been brought up to feel about art. It was very audacious to use commercial, mass production images. Why were you so taken with this revolutionary approach to art?

James Rosenquist: I don't think it's really revolutionary. It shows occasionally in our history, like in the "High and Low" show, there was a Joan Miró painting, a beautiful Miró painting, and the inspiration from that came from clipping a little picture of a knife, fork and spoon out of a catalogue somewhere. And he used the positive-negative space as a sketch, and then this became a big beautiful painting. It was very atmospheric and very unusual, and the knife, fork and spoons were transformed a little bit into funny shapes, but they were still from that. It showed the daring.

People have always been searching for an idea, or a reason to get them off the chair to do something. So during the time of Abstract Expressionism, a lot of students were merely taught to be careless with abandon. Hit the canvas with a rag, with a broom, with a brush. You know, that's called "tachism." After you've made a mark on the canvas, does that mark suggest an inspiration, you see? Then you have to have the responsibility to finish something and do something about that mark that you made, because you destroyed a beautiful painting surface. So, so many people were being taught like that, that the brushstroke -- the viscosity of paint -- became a cliché. That's one thing, that people became tired of that. So also, tired of an abstract painting being misinterpreted into something else. For instance, something that could be very ethereal looking and very unusual looking could have a figure of Popeye sitting there in the middle of it, but the artist didn't really see it. Now that's maybe a bad artist for having something in there that they didn't want. Hans Hofmann would never have done that. He was a sharp old duck. He knew what he was doing. But a lot of people would slip, and flip, and then you could see the strangest art works coming out. So people, so called Pop artists, a lot of them were commercial artists. Roy Lichtenstein did drafting, I was a billboard painter, Andy Warhol was a commercial artist. And others.

Do you think there was a reason why this happened when it did? This sense of making serious art from sources that had not been considered serious art?

James Rosenquist: I can't put my finger on that one. I don't really know. One could say that abstract painting up until 1945 or 1950 really had its roots in Europe, from French non-objective painting. One could say this looks more American, which has less roots in Europe. But I don't want to say that, because I don't see enough reasons for that. It would be a self-conscious attitude, like saying, "Hey, I'm going to do this now because I hate Europeans, I'm not going to be like that. I'm an American." I don't see that.

Did you feel that you were part of a movement at the time?

James Rosenquist: Well, Lawrence Alloway coined that term "Pop Art." We were also called "New Realists," and a lot of other things. I think it was a misnomer, Pop Art. Lawrence Alloway seemed to think that everyone was infatuated with popular imagery, which I don't think was the case. The strange thing is that since 1960, that art has still remained popular. People remain interested in it. Also, the artists involved have been very lucky to have a rather long life, with the exception of Andy Warhol and Öyvind Fahlström. But they've been pretty lucky. I'm lucky to have a rather long career.

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