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Popping Along

James Rosenquist's workmanlike, old-school approach keeps coming up with new challenges

The exhibition spans the years from the late 1950s to the present, but ultimately it is Rosenquist's older work that satisfies. The Menil hosts works up to 1969. Nomad (1963) offers up characteristically odd juxtapositions as it combines spaghetti, the legs of a ballet dancer, a giant billfold, a picnic table, an immense light bulb and the exclamation "NEW." A section of an Oxydol label fills most of the background as Rosenquist creates a striking visual mélange of American pop culture.

I Love You with My Ford (1961) is worth it for the title alone, but its three horizontal layers of image add an edgy poetry. At top is the crisply rendered front end of a car; at the bottom are visceral-looking squiggles of reddish-orange spaghetti. Sandwiched in between is a softly painted swatch of a man and a woman embracing.

Some of his most compelling works are uncharacteristically simple and subtle images of women. At the Menil Collection, Above the Square (1963) shows the lower half of a woman's legs, crossed at the knee and casting shadows. Rendered in grisaille tones, they are recognizable but cropped in such a way that they become diagonal formal elements. The square of the image floats down across two panels, exposing a pale robin's-egg blue in the upper right corner. At the MFAH, Green Flash (1979) is a hazy, sexy diptych. One side shows a woman holding a feathery aqua-blue powder puff against her bare shoulder, delicately frosted with talc. The other panel shows the glossy orange yolk of an egg like the nipple of breast. The egg simultaneously feels like a voluptuous symbol of fertility.

But as the work gets slicker and crisper, it becomes less and less interesting. The most recent paintings are disappointing, albeit fantastically large-scale pieces that hang well in the vast expanses of the MFAH Law building. These works are more abstract and fragmented, as if someone shattered one of his early paintings and threw it in a blender. Rosenquist sees this Speed of Light series as a way of exploring Einstein's theory of relativity -- it starts with the idea that a traveler at the speed of light would see an event differently from someone viewing it from a fixed point. It sounds like an interesting thing to paint, but the paintings aren't very interesting. Everything is too fractured and sleek.

Rosenquist paints thinly and matter-of-factly, in the tradition of the billboard: Get enough pigment down to create the illusion, but surface isn't important. That worked okay on swatches of recognizable images but is a far less successful technique when the works become more abstract. At a distance they have a graphic-design kind of impact, and up close they feel like paint-by-number.

The source images are far more interesting. In these works Rosenquist has taken his own shots, warping and mirroring objects through straight, rather than digital, photography. These tactile, pieced-together objects are much stronger than the paintings, which, in spite of their visual complexity, feel facilely executed.

It is incredibly admirable that Rosenquist keeps developing and challenging himself, but these most recent works unfortunately feel like just that. The artist is setting up visual problems that are intriguing for him to solve but not so interesting for us to view.

Through August 17 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. Through July 26 at McClain Gallery, 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988.

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