The unveiling of a 46 by 17 foot painting, the work of the seminal Pop Artist James Rosenquist took place this week at the North Dakota Museum of Art, to honour the artist’s 80 birthday. ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ 1988 is an homage to his mother who was an early North Dakota aviation pioneer. The painting covers the entire wall of the Museum’s east gallery.
Musing about the painting, Rosenquist said, “After my mother died in 1987, I painted Through the Eye of the Needle as a kind of commemoration of her unfulfilled life. She was an adventurer at heart. I always thought of my mother as someone who was avant-garde and very smart. But toward the end of her life she became discouraged. When she was young she’d been a pilot in North Dakota. Her hero was Amelia Earhart. I remember asking her if she had ever gotten her pilot’s license. She said, “No, that was before women’s liberation, but I flew all over the place anyway.”
North Dakota and aviation are greatly entrenched in Rosenquist’s work, particularly in his scale and size. Big skies, never-ending horizons, and the grand heights his mother and father soared to were all part of his childhood on the farm in Mekinock, ND, near the Airbase. While his parents searched for work throughout the Midwest, Jim would spend long summers with his paternal grandparents in North Dakota absorbing the vast open prairies. Eventually the Rosenquists settled in the Minneapolis area and, at age fourteen, James accepted a scholarship to attend Minneapolis School of Art at the Minneapolis Art Institute.
During his summer months in college, James painted gasoline signs and tanks for Phillips 66, and grain elevators throughout the Midwest. Eventually, he attended the Art Students League in New York and left Minnesota. Determined to become a mural painter, he looked to the League to learn “upscaling”, but became disheartened when no one was painting his desired scale, that is, big. To learn, James went back to billboards knowing the old traditions were alive and well.
According to the artist, billboard painters, “…cover huge areas with imagery by scaling images from sketches. They create something large using the grid method. Sometimes the grids would measure a quarter inch, or an inch to three feet, so a pencil line in a sketch would be almost a foot wide up on these big buildings. How does one deal with that? That was my question. I was not fascinated with the subject; I was fascinated with the technique.” High above the New Yorks streets, Rosenquist became known as the “Billboard Michelangelo.”
Rosenquist emerged as an artist with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, and Roy Lichtenstein. Many considered him a founder of the Pop Art Movement, although Rosenquist himself would say otherwise. Nonetheless, his ability to “upscale” and the manner in which he used commercial advertising, placed him in the movement by critics and collectors alike.
Rosenquist’s midwestern work ethic remained crucial to his success. After extended periods of time painting billboards in New York’s Times Square and Minneapolis, or on gas tanks and grain bins throughout the lands he temporarily called home, he found success as a painter.
His first one-man exhibition at Green Gallery in New York City immediately sold out. His exhibition was followed by Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip paintings, then Andy Warhol’s first one-man show of his Marilyn Diptych, 100 Soup Cans, 100 Coke Bottles, and 100 Dollar Bills. In the biography Painting Below Zero, Rosenquist states, “I’m resigned to being lumped together with Andy, Roy, Claes [Oldenberg], and Tom [Wesselmann] because I used similar imagery, but there’s a considerable difference in the way we each use that imagery. I was never concerned with logos or brand names or movie stars, like Andy, for instance. Unlike Roy, I wasn’t interested in ironic simulations of pop media; I wanted to make mysterious pictures. I’ve never included commercial imagery in painting for its own sake, for its ‘popness’ alone. In my paintings there’s always a reason for an image being there.”
Rosenquist continued, “Pop artists were a disparate group to begin with: ex-abstract expressionist (Lichtenstein), ex-cartoonist (Oldenburg), ex-commercial artist (Warhol), ex-chicken farmer (George Segal), and ex-billboard painter (me) all working independently toward our own vision.”
And so, Rosenquist’s career took off. Growing up in the 1950s, where everything was bigger, faster, electric, and new, there wasn’t much that didn’t remind him he was living in a “material utopia.” James began to paint fragments of these commercial objects creating a seemingly unresolved work leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. His work became a series of questions rather than answers.
Rosenquist’s birthday celebration will take place Sunday, October 20 at 4 pm. James and his wife Mimi Thompson will be joined by Judith Goldman, curator of the exhibition, and author of many books and catalogs on the artist.
James Rosenquist was born in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He is one of the leading American Pop artists. He studied art at the University of Minnesota in 1953, then at the Art Students League, New York, 1955-6. As a struggling artist trying to make it in New York, he supported himself by working as an industrial sign painter. His work in 1958-60 including painting a number of huge billboards in Times Square. Indiana met
Rauschenberg, Johns and Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana. His studio was in the same building and he soon became accepted into their circle. His early paintings were in the popular Abstract Expressionist style, but in 1960 he started to work with incongruous juxtapositions, fragmenting imagery derived from advertisements. His first one-man exhibition was at the Green Gallery, New York, 1962. It included some very large pictures, including a mural for the New York World’s Fair 1964 and a huge painting ‘F-111’ 1965, over 26 metres long. From this point onwards he was included in a number of groundbreaking group exhibitions that established Pop art as a movement. Since 1962 he has sometimes used mixed materials such as plastic sheets, mirrors, perspex, and neon and electric light. Rosenquist Lives in New York and in Tampa, Florida.
A celebratory exhibition to honour James Rosenquist’s 80 Birthday milestone take place in August 22 – November 11, 2013 North Dakota Museum of Art 261 Centennial Drive Stop 7305 Grand Forks, North Dakota 58202 USA