The Haiti I visited in 1975 was beautiful but devastatingly
poor and rough. I can only imagine the support the country
needs now following the 2010 earthquake.
Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1933, James Rosenquist established himself as one of the leading artists of the American Pop art movement in the 1960s. Trained as a billboard painter, the cool photorealistic aesthetic that he had become accustomed to in producing large-scale advertisements applied itself particularly well to the impersonal and fetishistic style that he and peers like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein would come to invent.
Rosenquist typically picks bland or otherwise generic everyday objects and renders these on large multi-paneled canvases that evoke the widescreen cinematic format that gained popularity in mid-century America. Working from source materials, including photographs cut out from magazines, he often plays with scale to yield unexpected juxtapositions and almost surrealist narratives. Rendered with abundant illusionism, his subject matter thus appears at once buoyant and impersonal. Commenting on the artist's unique style, Kirk Varnedoe, the late art historian and famed MoMA curator, noted: "He forced the antiquated techniques and scale conventions of sign painting to yield an equivalent for the jumpy, disjointed perceptions of an electronic age."1
Despite their seemingly banal content, Rosenquist's works possess layered meanings that touch upon contentious social and political issues. In 1965, the artist's eighty-six-foot, multi-paneled work F-111, depicting a fighter jet, nuclear blast, car tire, smiling young girl, and spaghetti in tomato sauce, amongst other disparate imagery, was a grand reflection on the Vietnam War. Varnedoe, tellingly, dubbed it "a narcissistic Guernica for the sixties."2 In President Elect (1960-1964), Rosenquist flanked a portrait of a smiling John F. Kennedy and a segment of a car with a close-up view of cake being offered by an otherwise invisible woman. In contrast to the rest of the painting, this central part was rendered in black and white, offering a somber statement on the often questionable gap between promises and reality.
Rosenquist's practice remains committed to the present moment and his works continue to engage with topical subjects. In The Richest Person Gazing at the Universe Through a Hubcap (2011), the artist presents a stack of gigantic gold coins centered between a glittering hubcap and an almost transparent human skull. The triptych-like composition, here arranged over two panels, is common throughout Rosenquist's oeuvre, as is the reference to car culture (frequently employed by Pop artists as quintessentially American). Yet the cosmic background of shiny stars and galaxies adds an elusive element to the scene, merging notions of time and space with the associations to consumer culture. Rosenquist has increasingly begun to incorporate the notion of time into his works, whether explicitly through subject matter depicting clocks and other time mechanisms, or indirectly such as in the present work, where the wealth indicated by the stack of coins as well as the title form a poignant contrast to the human skull.
While the concoction of skull and money may allude to the quest for immortality, with greed further being invoked by the title, the backdrop of stars provides a stark reminder that individual vanities are not merely perishable but ultimately grains in the sand. As the artist remarks, the work is a self-conscious "monument to wealth,
space, and curiosity," with the hubcap, despite its hallucinating, flower-shaped window, providing a firm link back to reality and commerce.
1 Kirk Varnedoe, High & Low: Modern Art in Popular Culture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1990), p. 367.