Painted right at the breakthrough moment in his career, riding off the incredible success of his first solo show at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery, James Rosenquist’s Marilyn II is a stunning and unique example of the elements of Rosenquist that make him a timeless and enduring artist. The seductive eyes of Norma Jeane, more infamously known as Marilyn Monroe, glance at us from the center of Rosenquist’s tondo. At 58 and ¾ inches across, her portrait envelopes the circumference of the canvas, with only a faint outline of her cheek at the lower right to indicate her gaze is landing on us mid-turn. At the same time, her mouth lifts upward into a captivating smile, and her eyelashes flutter, expertly rendered by Rosenquist with a softness that hints at movement and which lose their detail the closer one gazes at them.
These soft details of Marilyn’s face are painted in grisaille, a style Rosenquist favored in his early years. This black and white technique harkens back to the printed newspapers and magazines that pervaded homes, and often featured this very face sprawled across numerous pages. On top, a translucent pinwheel of colors gracefully covers her portrait; shades of blue, yellow and red alternate in bands of varying widths to create something of a makeshift color wheel. Lending a sense of playfulness, two balloons at the top and bottom of the tondo complete the work, attached to the canvas by a string.
In this painting as in life, Monroe remains ever elusive, an enigmatic beauty that defies easy definition or understanding. In this way, she becomes the perfect subject for Rosenquist, who even more so than his Pop art contemporaries thrived in a space of resisting interpretation. Rosenquist, who was born in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, began painting at an early age, spending the summers of his youth painting signs throughout the Midwest. After studying painting in Minnesota in the early 1950s, Rosenquist moved to New York in 1955, where he studied at the Arts Students League on a scholarship. During this time, he again worked as a billboard painter, gaining intimate knowledge of commercial techniques. In 1960, he began his formal career as a painter, transferring those techniques to a new kind of art. Working with these commercial techniques allowed Rosenquist to appropriate a recognizable style and use it to spark new conversations, and his signature style is the direct result of this training.
Creating huge canvases that borrowed from myriad consumerist images in jolting juxtapositions, Rosenquist allied his practice with the formative years of the Pop Art movement, and was included in two groundbreaking group shows dedicated to the movement: the New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery in November 1962 and Six Painters and the Object at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1963, the same year as Marilyn II was painted. Although there was much to ally him to the movement thanks to his renderings of consumer products and movie stars in a cool, impersonal, graphic manner, Rosenquist never quite saw himself as a true member of Pop art.
It is true there are certain important elements to his work that make him a singular member of the movement. For one, Rosenquist was always a painter’s painter, preferring in almost every case to paint by hand instead of relying on mechanical techniques that had come to be synonymous with Pop artists thanks to Warhol’s silkscreens and Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day stencils. He was, according to Walter Hopps, “a superb painter in a very traditional sense, producing very untraditional images” (W. Hopps. “Connoissuer of the Inexplicable,” in James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh., cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004, p. 8). Moreover, he had a distinct disavowal of the nostalgia often communicated in the paintings of other Pop artists. Instead, he preferred ambiguity. He eschewed brand names and recognizable objects. He painted real things, but cropped and distorted them at arbitrary angles, turning the familiar into the unfamiliar. Rosenquist didn’t share Warhol’s satire, Oldenburg’s wit or Lichtenstein’s cerebral pondering of style. What he does share with his contemporaries, however, is an intense intrigue for the people and objects that make America uniquely its own, and the unsuspecting agitation that can accompany them.
In many ways, Marilyn is a textbook emblem of this mass foray into pop culture ushered in during the 1950s and 60s, and the hidden tension underscoring America’s Golden Age. A patron saint of Pop, she appears in works by numerous artists working at the time. In art, her name is most synonymous with Andy Warhol, but she has made her share of appearances in Rosenquist’s oeuvre, most notably in Marilyn Monroe, I, painted the year before the present lot and presently hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this work, her face is broken into quarters and flipped at various orientations, with the letters “A-R-I-L-Y,” a portion of her name, scrawled across the center. In Marilyn Monroe, I, the actress appears far more disjointed than in the present lot, with Rosenquist almost suggesting her rather than actually painting her. Yet despite the seemingly greater clarity in Marilyn II, she still eludes us as the softness of her features, expertly painted by Rosenquist, fade out of focus the closer one gets to them.
Both works brilliantly illustrate Rosenquist’s ability to distance common objects and popular images through scale, fragmentation and unlikely juxtaposition, allowing the images to gain new meaning through their recontextualized relationships. Despite setting his art apart from his contemporaries, he nonetheless was described in 2003 by the critic Peter Schjeldahl as “one of the big three masters of American Pop painting, with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein” (P. Schjeldahl, quoted in M. Schudel, “James Rosenquist, painter of unnerving large-scale masterworks, dies at 83,” Washington Post, April 3, 2017, accessed November 27, 2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/james-rosenquist-painter-of-unnerving-large-scale-masterworks-dies-at-83/2017/04/03). A work such as Marilyn II shows us why he is undoubtedly deserving of that title, tantalizing its viewer with layers of meaning and superb painterly ability, providing new insights and visual pleasure the longer one gazes upon it.