Born 1933, Grand Forks, North Dakota
Died 2017, New York, New York
Born 1933, Grand Forks, North Dakota
Died 2017, New York, New York
A pioneer of Pop art, James Rosenquist is best known for his collagist, large-scale paintings filled with fragmented imagery drawn from advertisements and mass media. He established his signature painterly style in the early 1960s, transposing the visual language of commercial painting onto his canvases. Working with popular images and commonplace objects, he crafted a poetic visual language with jarring, unexpected couplings and haunting metaphors that hinted at social, cultural, and political concerns.
Born in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Rosenquist was raised in the Midwest. He studied at the University of Minnesota and, at his teacher’s suggestion, applied and won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York. Taking a day job for Artkraft Strauss while in New York, Rosenquist enjoyed a brief, but significant career as a billboard painter. Spending his days perched on scaffolding high above Times Square, he worked from small reference images to paint advertisements on a monumental scale. In the late 1950s, while working as a billboard painter, he continued to paint in his home studio, creating small, gray abstractions indebted to the gestural abstractions of the New York School. In 1960, he quit his commercial work to devote himself to painting full-time, and, adapting the technical skills he had learned as a commercial painter, he began filling large-scale pictures with fragmented advertising imagery rendered in a smooth, airbrushed-like finish. These paintings would establish the artist as one of the pioneering figures of Pop art.
“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.”
– James Rosenquist
Brighter Than the Sun is one of Rosenquist’s earliest Pop paintings, completed just months after he finished Zone– which the artist considered his foray into Pop. While Zone and many of his early 1960s paintings were completed entirely in grisaille, recalling black and white advertisements, Brighter Than the Sun features arcs of neon colors alongside muted and grisaille passages, anticipating the vibrant palette that would come to define Rosenquist’s signature Pop aesthetic.
In making his early Pop works, Rosenquist first created collages of advertisements taken from magazines (usually issues of Life magazine from about a decade prior). He would then alter and recombine these ad fragments into enigmatic juxtapositions featuring unexpected combinations of images at a disorienting scale. Rosenquist used these source collages as a guide in creating his large-scale Pop paintings; their scale and proportions often recall the billboards he painted in his commercial work. Simultaneously recognizable and unfamiliar, these paintings reflected the fast-paced tempo of contemporary life and the profusion of mass media imagery inherent to the 1960s. “I tell history in terms of fragments,” Rosenquist once wrote, “the fragments butt up against each other, and the story gets told from the friction they create. I wanted to bombard the viewer with implausible juxtapositions.” By cropping and inverting collaged elements, Rosenquist explored the transformative power of scale and of unexpected juxtapositions. His unexpected combinations of altered, unrelated media images dismantle their advertiser’s intentions to create enigmatic, thought-provoking narratives that raise questions about advertising and consumer culture.
As the source collage for Brighter Than the Sun reveals, this painting combines three discrete fragments into an elusive but suggestive narrative: the top register references the colorful logo of Oxydol laundry detergent, the inverted legs are from a black and white stockings advertisement, and the bottom left depicts an image of a glowing sun– or, as Rosenquist’s handwritten note on the collage suggests, perhaps the ominous explosion of a hydrogen bomb. Through this unexpected combination of images, Brighter Than the Sun addresses pressing contemporary issues inherent with the rise of consumerism, juxtaposing the promises of advertising with the haunting specter of nuclear warfare during the Cold War. While reflecting on the work later in his career, Rosenquist stated: “I wondered what was more powerful in a capitalist, media-saturated society: a hydrogen bomb explosion or the color of a soap box label?”
"Brighter than the sun ... [what is] more powerful a soap box economy or a hydrogen bomb?"
By the mid-1960s, Rosenquist had achieved critical acclaim as one of the pioneering American Pop artists. In the fall of 1963, he moved to a larger studio on Broome Street and began expanding the size of his paintings. He created a large mural for the 1964 World’s Fair and began work on his iconic painting, F-111, which, when it was first exhibited in 1965, wrapped around the four walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery. In a pictorial critique of American militarism and consumerism, the painting depicts the controversial new fighter plane, the F-111 jet, amidst disturbing images of consumer products. F-111, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, earned Rosenquist international renown.
Throughout the 1970s, Rosenquist continued to paint in his trademark Pop aesthetic, painting works that directly allude to cultural and political themes. He also frequently experimented with unconventional materials and site-specific installations. In 1976, he built a house and studio in Aripeka, Florida to accommodate the ever-increasing size of his work and his numerous large-scale commissions. Inspired by his new surroundings, Rosenquist completed a series of vibrant paintings about reincarnation which included tropical flora and fauna, people, and animals in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, Rosenquist began a new series, The Speed of Light, in which he explored the themes of space, light and relativity in brilliantly colored, abstract paintings. He continued to explore the perception of time and space in his later work.
Rosenquist is represented in major private and public collections worldwide, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and the Tate Modern in London. Apart from his many gallery and museum exhibitions, James Rosenquist has had more than fifteen retrospectives, with two at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a large retrospective at The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in 1993. In 2003-2004 the Guggenheim Museum organized a retrospective that traveled to Houston, New York, Bilbao, and Wolfsburg. Most recently, he was the subject of the traveling retrospective James Rosenquist: Painting as Immersion at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark from 2017-18. His 2009 autobiography Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art is a best-seller.
Works of art by James Rosenquist are © 2023 James Rosenquist Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Used by permission. All rights reserved.