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Popping Along

I Love You with My Ford is worth it for the title alone.
Courtesy Menil Collection

Hear the name James Rosenquist and an image of the little girl sitting under a hair dryer comes to mind. F-111 (1964-65), the 86-foot-long protest against the symbiosis of military and consumer culture, is the most iconic painting in this pop artist's body of work. It is a mainstay of second-semester art history survey classes. But this summer's Rosenquist onslaught -- a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Menil Collection, as well as exhibitions at local galleries -- will no doubt broaden familiarity with the artist's other works.

Rosenquist's stint as a billboard painter is the most widely known factoid about him. But it also intrinsically shaped the way he would make art. Rosenquist was one of those kids who could draw beautifully and realistically. He arrived in New York in the 1950s, the heyday of abstract expressionism, with a scholarship to study at the Art Students League. In Manhattan, he found work as a billboard painter, rendering products and giant movie star heads in Times Square. He quit in 1960 when two fellow painters fell to their deaths.

But the skill set he acquired while painting billboard-sized advertising would serve him well as a fine artist. He developed the ability to work easily with large-scale images -- a hallmark of his later paintings. His early abstract expressionist works were done with "colors that were brought home from painting signs that were the wrong color." These were shades salesmen had rejected -- say, the blue was off on a Milk of Magnesia bottle. Soon the imagery and aesthetics of advertising made their way into Rosenquist's work as well.

Rosenquist took sections and snippets of representational images and collaged them into paintings, creating quirky juxtapositions like the men's shoes, woman's head and spaghetti in Promenade of Merce Cunningham (1963). He worked like an abstract artist, creating compositions whose geometric elements were chunks of representational imagery. Rosenquist assembled collages from magazine ads and images. He gridded these off in the manner of the billboard painter, flawlessly duplicating each section of the source image on a vastly enlarged scale.

But why these images? Rosenquist disingenuously says, "I don't know what a pop artist is, except it dawned on me in 1957. They asked me to paint a Schenley whiskey bottle over every candy store. I got tired of painting this image." The text on the label described the whiskey in flowery language, but it was unreadable from the street, so Rosenquist "started painting 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' because I thought, 'This is ridiculous and tiresome,' and I was so anti-advertising and anticapitalist. Of course, people get mad if you say that today."

Today, images from pop art's heyday evoke a kind of nostalgia, something far removed from its original contempt for the dehumanizing machinery of marketing and advertising. At the height of irony, advertising itself has reappropriated pop art's appropriation of advertising imagery.

The political is an important key to Rosenquist and his work. It informs his attitudes toward art-making and imagery. In addition to F-111 he has created works in response to the AIDS crisis (big handguns pointed toward the viewer against a bright pink background) as well as paintings responding to everything from events in the Balkans to environmental concerns.

When he was a kid, his mother took him to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Decades later he did a print for an embassy program and was invited to a reception with President Clinton. He asked to bring his young daughter along and was told that children weren't allowed. He told the organizers he had met FDR as a child and became a lifelong Democrat and that his daughter had to meet the president so she could become a Democrat as well. The organizers yielded.

Born in North Dakota, Rosenquist is an entertaining raconteur who retains a down-to-earth, plainspoken Midwestern demeanor. A past member of the sign painters union, he remains a labor sort of Democrat. He held on to his union card for years until, after three sold-out shows, he thought he could make it as an artist. At 70 he "hires carpenters and electricians," but he still paints all of his own work, which can stretch up to 90 feet long. His knees are going, but he is scheduling surgery so he can get back to work at full speed.

Rosenquist's workmanlike, old-school approach is extremely refreshing, as is the way he talks about his work and the excitement of constructing images. "I have been very fortunate to sell my work so I could live," he says, adding, "I never thought I would have a show until I was dead." The best thing about the retrospective is that it shows an artist who is still challenging himself, still exploring new ideas.

Rosenquist reveals that this is his 12th retrospective: "I've been through this mill a lot." But if mere photo albums can lead people down a steep and craggy memory lane, what is it like to be surrounded with decades of your own work? "It is scary, because I remember great times as well as the good, bad and the ugly. Good times and bad times go by, but the painting remains. The paintings are accumulations of ideas at the time that got me off my chair to do something. The feeling of the moment becomes a record of the times -- my feelings about the time, not everyone's."

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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