Born in North Dakota, Rosenquist studied painting at the University of Minnesota. Then in 1955, he moved to New York City, where he studied at the Art Students League. It was his work as a professional sign painter that would profoundly shape both his approach to art and his artistic persona. He began painting signs in 1953, and the work evolved into painting billboards around New York City by 1957 (he was a member of Local 230 or the Sign, Pictorial and Display Union). In 1960, he began employing dramatically enlarged and crisply defined images that characterized billboard design into his own work. The visual language of everyday llife—cars, food, blue jeans, President Kennedy—rendered in a smooth, largely anonymous hand, allied him with other artists working in a Pop idiom.
Unlike his contemporaries, such as Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, however, Rosenquist did not portray his subjects in a strictly frontal and immediate way. Instead, he inserted his own point of view into his paintings via his abrupt juxtapositions and the dislocations and distortions of his subject matter. Furthermore, unlike his Pop peers, Rosenquist explored political themes addressing war and racism in the 1960s. His work was quickly successful; his first solo show, at New York’s Green Gallery in 1962, sold out before the opening. (1) In 1963, he received a commission for the New York World’s Fair. By this point, he was fully immersed in New York’s avant-garde. He had rented a studio on Coenties Slip, where neighbors included Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly; in 1961 Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend, and Henry Geldzhaler all made visits to his studio.
Rosenquist continued developing his key themes: juxtapositions of consumer goods and popular culture taken from magazines, billboards, and the ephemera of American life. With elements fragmented and scales distorted, many of the paintings suggested narrative readings. Indeed, some contain puns and others express political convictions. But above all, they suggest ambivalence.
Although he did not embrace the Pop label for himself, Rosenquist exhibited in the key shows associated with Pop, including “Americans 1963” at the Museum of Modern Art. By 1972, his work had been the subject of three retrospective exhibitions, and he had experimented with both film and printmaking; the latter would become a lasting interest. In the decades that followed, he has remained a key figure in American modernism, with regular exhibitions, including a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2003. Rosenquist lives and works in Florida.
(1) Judith Goldman, James Rosenquist (New York: Viking, 1985), 12.
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