James Rosenquist, Surrealist Esthete by Donald Kuspit
"James Rosenquist: A Retrospective," Oct. 17, 2003-Jan. 25, 2004, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128
James Rosenquist starts as a facile Surrealist and ends as a visionary esthete -- it's a noble development, all the more so because it shows that he had the artistic strength to transcend the media sycophancy of Pop art, which Andy Warhol never outgrew. It's a relief to know that a Pop artist was able to mature, moving beyond infantile infatuation with popular culture to a vision of art itself, which, however rooted in traditional modernism, is ferociously new in its energy and intelligence.
(The infatuation is supposed to be leavened by irony, but irony has become glib in Pop art -- ingratiating and cute rather than debunking and critical -- suggesting that it endorses the popular culture it supposedly mocks. Indeed, Pop art legitimates popular culture by suggesting that it is high art in disguise -- an ingenious application of the Emperor's New Clothes principle of making art that the readymade inaugurated. For Pop art, the artistic goal is to be popular, not to show that there's something ridiculous about popularity.)
Rosenquist also develops a vision of the world beyond popular culture, the world of reflection and innovation incomprehensible to it. Popular culture seems to exist to stifle thought -- certainly critical consciousness and experimentation -- suggesting that it is the instrument of a new dark age, however enlightened our times look on the surface. Whatever it may have to do with popular culture, Rosenquist's late work is an attempt to bridge the gap between the culture of science and technology and of art.
Technology envy is implicit in such works as Untitled (Broome Street Truck) (1963) and the famous F-111 (1965), and science envy in such works as Lune (1991) and Time Dust-Black Hole (1992). Can art invent anything so ingenious and useful as a truck and a jet airplane -- whatever use it may put their images to -- or reach the moon and explore the starry cosmos? Rosenquist's late work is an attempt to answer the question -- to rise to the challenge of science and technology, which seem to overshadow art with their knowledge and invention.
As The Meteor Hits Picasso's Bed (1996-99) and Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Declaration of Human Rights by Eleanor Roosevelt (1998) show, he also takes on Picasso, officially the greatest artist of the 20th century, as though to assert his own greatness as an artist. And also to signal the conflict between the finite world of art and the infinite cosmos, which is full of more astonishing surprises (and impact) than art, and which science and technology, with their boundless curiosity and aggressive inventiveness, seem to master.
In contrast, art is a victim of chance circumstance -- the meteor threatening its existence. The tattered remnant of Guernica in Rosenquist's 1998 painting is the only debris left from the shipwreck of art -- a nostalgic emblem of great art about to disappear into the cosmic whirlpool. (These paintings also suggest that the figure is not the measure of the cosmos. And that the experiments and innovations of Picasso, arguably the most significant and courageous in art history, are no match for scientific experimentation and technological innovation -- the defining feature of modernity. Picasso missed the boat by neglecting them, suggesting that the greatest artist is hardly a "seer" compared to the great scientist.
The variety of avant-garde revolutions do not change the world as much as the scientific and technological revolutions. But Rosenquist's late work, while effusive with adulatory awe of science and technology, subsumes scientific and technological vision in an artistic vision of their emotional meaning: art offers a visionary account -- an evocative exploration -- of the emotions that science and technology repress in the name of objectivity.)
There's a serious qualitative change between the bombastic juxtapositions of Nomad (1963) and Lanai (1964) and the perceptual complexity of The Swimmer in the Eco-Mist paintings (both 1997-98). Instead of hard-edged objects more or less fixed in place (however strange the place) there's now soft-edged objects caught in a structureless swirl in which there is no clear and distinct place.
Instead of ironic social commentary, most obviously in the F-111 environment, there's the radical estheticism of Women's Intuition, After Aspen (1998), and the magnificent "Speed of Light" series, beginning with Hitchhiker -- Speed of Light and Passenger -- Speed of Light (both 1999), moving through The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light (2000), and climaxing in Spectator -- Speed of Light (2001).
Yes, there's the old social concern in the late works, and the same cosmic grandiosity and sweep, scrambling perspective, and the familiar fascination with slick technology (household and otherwise), but there's a new intensity of color and surface, and above all a vigorous new dynamic and complication, awakening wonder instead of simply teasing us, as in the early Pop Surrealism. Fragments of Pop imagery -- informational sound-bites in the form of labels and signs -- are subsumed in a cosmic tumult, which seems to consume them like the waste disposal in a sink -- grind them into primal ooze, or is it a cosmic cesspool?
Yes, Rosenquist has always been a master of flashy color, but it lay there passively, spread in broad planes, as passive and inert as the objects in his early paintings. Sometimes the objects are glamorized by bright colors, as in Dishes (1964) -- were the cheap dishes colorful to begin with? -- but the colors lay on them flatly instead of informing them, however subtly animated by the reflection of light (usually on hard objects), which fragments into colors on impact.
Rosenquist is clearly fascinated by reflections, to the extent that they become a redundant motif in his work, perhaps because they suggest the perversity of perception. A fractured reflection is an ironical mimesis, and Rosenquist is obsessed with the ironies of mimetic reflection, as in Marilyn Monroe I (1962). The ironies of popular culture are secondary.
Increasingly, he prefers to dissect and dramatize perception -- or rather watch it dissect and dramaticize itself -- than to acknowledge the popular culture environment. His surrealism derives from his awareness of perceptual absurdities -- the inherent weirdness of perception, making it problematic to the ordinary eye -- rather than from any predetermined ideology of the unconscious.
(The broadness -- even flat-footedness -- of the handling in the early paintings, although supposedly derived from the billboards Rosenquist worked on as a youth -- and from Rene Magritte, the Surrealist with whom he has the greatest affinity -- suggests they are mock field paintings, just as the gestural scribbles in the right panel of the triptych Evolutionary Balance  are mock automatism. Like many Popists -- Popes of pop culture -- Rosenquist has a way of parodying and trivializing pure art, including the triptych, the vehicle of an earlier religion. Pop art, after all, worships the popular culture, which is a secular religion. The fact that it is the opium of the masses suggests as much.)
The point I am making is that many passages in Rosenquist's late work at once summarize and epitomize the history of what Duchamp dismissed as "sensual painting." As Robert Motherwell said, his "disdain" for it was irrational, and in a sense a response to what he perceived as its
irrationality: Duchamp's "despair of the esthetic," as Motherwell called it, arose from his frustration at being unable to find any reason for preferring one "retinal" sensation over any other.
Declaring that painting has been "dead. . . for a good 50 or 100 years," that is, during the period when sensual painting developed -- not only are his contemporaries Picasso and Matisse irrelevant, but the whole development of "retinal" painting from Manet through Monet through van Gogh through Czanne -- he tried to enlist "art in the service of the mind." (The separation of mind and sense experience -- mind and body, high and low -- is an obsolete philosophical clich kept alive for emotional reasons.)
Pop art has been understood as a version of what Duchamp called "intellectual expression" as distinct from the "animal expression" of sensual painting, but it seems clear that in his later works, Rosenquist, however intellectual he remains, turned with a vengeance to sensual painting. Color, surface and shape are expressionistically activated and scrambled, dazzling the retina. Pointillism is integrated with gesturalism, resulting in a new perceptual density and aliveness. Red boils over and erupts, like an uncontrollable inflammation. There is a tenebristic dimension to the work: light, or luminous objects -- inwardly radiant as well as reflecting light -- explodes from the surrounding darkness, creating an island of vitality in the nothingness.
Even in the black and white works -- photographically based, as many of the other works seem to be? -- there is a sense of retinal engulfment, refinement and intensity. Flowers Before the Sun (1989) -- a work, like all the flower works, inspired by the flora of Florida, where Rosenquist lives (and where the expanse of the sky is more visible than it is in New York, if not as visible as it was on the Great Plains where he grew up, suggesting that his sky-space works are informed by childhood memories) -- makes the point brilliantly with its own dramatic brilliance.
Rosenquist realized that sensuality was the avenue to enigmatic emotion, suggesting that he turned to sensual painting -- it is already evident, if in tentative, mocking form, in such works as Capillary Action II (1963) and Bottomless House (1976), among other works -- to recover the feelings that science and technology had repudiated. (And also Pop art, which is conventionally viewed as inexpressive, indeed, anti-expressive.) The only reason to continue to paint in an age of mechanical reproduction is to restore the sensuality and emotionality that it denies or falsifies.
There is a new sense of enigma in Rosenquist's late work, and it is associated with femininity, as it was for the Surrealists. A woman's eye peers out of the so-called "crosshatched" paintings, where it is associated with the flowers. I read the crosshatching as so many shreds of female flesh -- they are usually flesh-toned -- spread like a veil over the space, confirming its mystery.
One only has to think back to Man Ray's Indestructible Object, with its eye on a metronome, to get the mysterious point: Rosenquist's feminine eye -- the sensual painter's eye? -- is enigma hypostasized. The mind's eye, God's eye, the Masonic omniscient eye on the pyramid pictured on the back of the dollar bill -- all are condensed into Rosenquist's feminine eye, femininity being the royal road to art.
Indeed, I venture to say that the cosmic swirl that appears in the late work is the amorphous abyss of a fantasied vagina -- a conventional association, but one that reminds us that mystical "oceanic experience," which is the inner theme of the late paintings, involves regressive merger with the eternal feminine, that is, Magna Mater. Only heroic adventure in the infernal depths, where one meets the inner mother, can make one a true artist -- as distinct from a
According to the post-Kleinean psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer, "the esthetic conflict. . . can be most precisely stated in terms of the outside of the 'beautiful' mother, available to the senses, and the enigmatic inside which must be construed by creative imagination." The kaleidoscope of color fragments in Rosenquist's late paintings represents this beautiful sensuous outside, and the enigmatic inside is conveyed by the creative flux of the speed of phallic light.
Outside and inside seamlessly converge, establishing what Meltzer calls "esthetic reciprocity" or "intimacy." Certainly the lipsticks and drill bits that appear in many of Rosenquist's paintings are attributes of the same phallic woman -- the fantasy mother that is the source of life. Rosenquist has reconciled with her by envisioning her creative power -- the late works are allegories of female power, overflowing in lurid abundance, rhapsodically sweeping us away.
Their science fiction mysticism is female creative power in abstract magical disguise. Seen from the inside, as in the late works, rather than from the social outside, as in the early Pop works, she is no longer a glamorous illusion, seductive but hollow, but rather the cosmic Venus whom Lucretius describes, uniting and separating the atoms in ceaseless movement.
Rosenquist is a Faustian artist -- an artist drawn to the Faustian momentum of capitalist consumer society, symbolized by the popular culture, and then to the Faustian intensity of modern science and technology -- and Goethe famously ended the story of Faust with an appeal to the eternal feminine (libido, Eros). It lures us on and saves us -- from ourselves and society -- as only creativity can. It has clearly rescued Rosenquist from the banality of the popular culture and Pop art.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.