James Rosenquist: Blowing Pop to Pieces

May 13, 2013 10:20PM

"Meteors make you think about what’s significant, and what has consequences and what doesn’t during your brief time on earth." - James Rosenquist, 1999

In six decades of James Rosenquist’s art, there are but a few constants: the first is his attention to consumer marketing strategies, the second is his unswerving consciousness as an artist creating art history, and the third is rather simple — his prolic love of creation. Addressing the first constant, Rosenquist’s Pop label is only a critic’s term — a way to categorize an artist without emphasizing the unique importance of his own work. But the second two constants are the defining factors of Rosenquist’s career, in which we witness an artist’s uncompromising desire to understand and establish his work in contemporary America. The Meteor Hits the Swimmer’s Pillow, 1997, is from a four part series of meteors that crash into the slumbering masters of Western Art: while Monet, Picasso, and Brancusi all receive their own treatment, the sleep interrupted here is Rosenquist’s own.

Rosenquist’s background in billboard painting — essentially blowing up the schemas of advertising executives — gave him his first fodder for making art. Combining Americana with its Pop Culture ideals, Rosenquist shaped and painted his creations with a new mentality: art by the consumer, for the consumer. Also contributing to his own projects as a fine artist was the enormous scale in which he was forced to work in his billboard paintings: size was not only important for grabbing attention in contemporary America, but perhaps the most pivotal factor overall. In the subsequent decades, he has taken us on a ride through the beautiful and the sinister, remaking the familiar in the light of art.

But by the late nineties, working as one of the most respected figures to come out of the turbulent sixties, Rosenquist could not help but reflect upon his own status, importance, and general impact on visual arts. While we often find narratives within the pieces of art that Rosenquist appropriates and splices, what was his own narrative? As a commission by Deutsche Bank for the Berlin’s Guggenheim, 1997’s The Swimmer in the Econo-mist #2 was Rosenquist’s initial attempt to put his career in retrospective terms, abstracting his ever-present visual tropes of the laundry room into a swirling mural of gorgeous color and texture.

In a more compact, more comparative scale was his Meteor series, in which he envisions an explosive impact of image and figure for separate artists within the Western canon. In 1997’s The Meteor Hits the Swimmer’s Pillow, is a reference to his own place alongside the masters of the past. The huge scale of the painting allows both intimate and distant viewing pleasures for the viewer, both equally rapturous. In the foreground, a rainbow beam of fire delivers a cannonball-shaped meteor into the pillow of the artist’s bed, precipitating the detonation of image behind it. "Gain" and "Ultra 2" swirl in massive reds, fiery yellows and flaming oranges, a tribute to Rosenquist’s visual themes of the past. Juxtaposed with blurred forest greens and powder blues, the scene is a joyous calamity: a farcical blast of fabulous beauty.

Though it is of a piece with its three sister paintings, which portray the meteors alternative routes to the bedrooms of Picasso, Brancusi, and Monet, The Meteor Hits the Swimmer’s Pillow is Rosenquist’s most personal, most exploratory, and most fascinating: we observe an artist reflecting upon his past work while using it to inspire new art in a veritible spin cycle of creation — Rosenquist’s ingenious method of comprehending his remarkably deserved place among his historical predecessors.

The Meteor Hits the Swimmer’s Pillow, 1997, will be offered in our Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2013, in New York.

Additional images: Portrait of James Rosenquist. Photographed by Peter Foe | James Rosenquist The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (painting 2), 1997. Commissioned by the Deutsche Bank in consultation with the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin.