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Sunday, April 02, 2017

James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist, one of the major figures of pop art, died on Friday. He was 83. He may not have been as well known as Andy Warhol (who shamelessly self-promoted himself) or Roy Liechtenstein, but he was key member of artists who, in the 1960s, used commercial art, such as advertising and comic books, as a basis for serious art.

Rosenquist painted on a grand scale. He started as a billboard painter, and kept the dimensions. One of his best known works, "F-111," takes up two walls of a gallery. Frequently his works are larger than people, They are painted on panels, in enamel, in bright colors that almost explode. He favored red, and in more than one painting he uses lipstick tubes with fire-engine red. "Fahrenheit 1982 Degrees" has lipstick tubes thrust toward the viewer, along with a female fingernail, also painted bright red.

What his paintings actually mean is up for grabs. "F-111," with the picture of a jet plane and then a little girl under a hair-dryer that looks like a bomb, was anti-military. But paintings like "I Love You With My Ford," which is three horizontal panels, one with a car grill, another with a woman's face, and the third with spaghetti, are anybody's guess.

This leads me to my brush with greatness. I was at the Whitney Museum sometime in the '80s for a Rosenquist show. I was on my own, but fell in with a tour group. The tour guide was standing in front of one of Rosenquist's massive paintings, "Star Thief," which has bacon in outer space. She was giving her interpretation, and a hand went up.

"Excuse me, I'm James Rosenquist," he introduced himself. "And that is incorrect," or some such words. The tour guide must have known he was in her group and this is what she probably dreaded. The tour was full of old people. One of them immediately asked him what his name meant (Swedish for "rose stick") and another consoled the tour guide. She was okay, and said something like, "Every interpretation is correct." Here, here.

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