'I'm interested in contemporary vision - the flicker of chrome, reflections, rapid associations, quick flashes of light. Bing - bang! I don't do anecdotes. I accumulate experiences' (Rosenquist, quoted in J. Goldman, James Rosenquist, exh. cat., New York 1985, p. 46).
Shown in distorted scale, magnified to an absurd degree, Rosenquist's Barb Wire combines the banality of our world of mass production with the zap of the language of advertising. This is not Pop, but gains its inexorable momentum from a similar spring of commercial visuals. And Rosenquist's experience of this raw visual matter was greater than most of his contemporaries because he had, for several years, worked as a painter of billboards. This experience would inform both the scale and the content of his paintings.
Barb Wire is not a vast painting, and yet the vast magnification of the tiny segment of wire is clearly derived from the experience of standing close to a picture-surface, working on a small scale in order to create something monumental that would tower over Times Square. In this light, Barb Wire appears almost as a segment of some unknown, imaginary, colossal masterpiece, a tiny piece in the jigsaw. And it is in this, in the stripping away of any context or any other extraneous detail, that Rosenquist's unique surreal perspective becomes evident. Barbed wire, a humdrum, everyday material, has been shown in a lurid new light, with intense boldness, with a vitality that spills from the canvas. It has been brought to intense life through the vim and vigour of advertising. 'I guess I've rejected the banality and greed involved in advertising,' Rosenquist mused, 'but I've seen it bring colour into our lives' (Rosenquist, quoted in W. Hopps, 'Connoisseur of the Inexplicable,' pp. 2-15, W. Hopps & S. Bancroft (eds.), James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York 2003, p. 13).
The forms of the barbed wire, blown out of proportion, become absurd. They become somehow distant from the visual source. Through this amount of detail, they are magnified to the point of abstraction and come to resemble the shapes and forms of so many of the Abstract Expressionist painters whose influence was still so key at this point in the mid-1960s. In this way, Barb Wire relates to the Spaghetti pictures that Rosenquist was painting at the time, details of which would sneak into his larger canvases. At the same time, the content of Barb Wire, despite being reduced, through magnification, to a point where it is appreciated for its formal qualities of shape and colour, is also a crucially important theme, as is reflected by its role in several installation pieces from he same period. Of those works, Rosenquist explained that, 'The barbed wire was about the military-industrial complex - it's bright and shiny and chrome-plated, yet it's, you know, barbed wire. And it stops people from doing things' (Rosenquist, quoted in ibid., p. 14). Thus the visual impact of advertising has been deliberately subverted in an image that has sinister subtexts of restriction, containment and subjection.