Portraits of Artists 76

Conversation with James Rosenquist

Max Hollein: The first question would be: I'm interested in your involvement in politics and your interest in political questions, not only as an active member in the artist community in the royalty case, but also as an artist, which started already in '64, or maybe even earlier with the very significant painting "F-111", but which covered a whole range of paintings you did during election years (e.g. "Star Thief", "Horse Blinders") up to '92. "Masquerade of the Military Industrial Complex Looking Down on the Insect World", is the last painting that I am aware of from an election year which has a very significant political context. I was wondering how this interest and involvement in these issues came about. How do you see your role in this?

James Rosenquist: Well, what happened to me, I was an artist, like every artist who gives everything away. Artists seem to appear, work like hell, do a lot of things, and then disappear. We have many cases of that like Bob Smithson, a contemporary artist. People who never gained much from their art, financially, like Vincent Van Gogh. In 1971, I had a terrible automobile crash, and at the same time I was in mid-career. I was 37 years old, and I had sold works for a thousand dollars, 1500 dollars or 250 dollars. Well, after I had this accident, I finally got back to painting, and I was working. In 1972 or 1973 collectors would come to my studio and say, "Ah, fantastic, great painting", and then they'd leave, even Dr. Ludwig at that time, and they'd go out and buy a painting at an auction for 45,000 bucks that I'd sold for 4,000. I was angry. I was angry, because I was penniless, I mean I was 60,000 bucks in debt. So I met this guy, Reuben Gorewitz, who was a very strange man and he said, "We're starting something called Artists' Rights Today" I said, "What are artists' rights?". He said: "Nothing, cause they don't have any!". So, with Bob Rauschenberg and Marian Javits I went down to Washington to lobby at the doorways of the Senate for an Artists' Royalty Law. And the law proposed was to collect 15% royalty on any monies that achieved over $1,000 from the original sale. We'd stand there, we'd pull on senators' and congressmen's sleeves, or Marian would. She'd say, "Senator, these two young men have something to say to you". So it would be Bob and me, and quick, we'd say something, and Hubert Humphrey would turn around: "Put my name on that bill!" So we had Javits, Brademas, Hubert Humphrey, Claiborne Powell, Ed Koch.

MH: So you made quite an impression?

JR: Well, it passed the Senate, failed the House.

MH: Yeah.

JR: First of all, I have to backtrack. In 1964, I travelled around the country. I went to amusement parks in Texas, saw big obsolete bombers. My parents had been aviators in 1931. I was always interested in aviation. I learned many things. It was this input that made me produce this painting. I was interested in peripheral vision, which means that whatever comes in the side of your eye dictates what you see. What you see is what you get, because of the peripheral vision. At the same time, the Metropolitan Museum put on a show of 19th century paintings, hung all the way up the wall on maroon, on dark red wallpaper. How could you see the damn paintings with all the dark red wallpaper? So, I talked to Barney Newman about what "it" is? A stick in "Great Neck Harbor", or "Great Neck Long Island", in the water, that's what "it" is, that's "it" . He kept talking about "it". And then I saw a photograph of Monet standing in the middle of paintings all around in a circle, so that the peripheral vision got in his eye. Then Jackson Pollock painted on the floor on large canvases. Peripheral vision dictated what he saw. So, I wanted to do this wrap-around painting of the latest fighter bomber that was already obsolete although it hadn't gotten off the drawing board. `Cause I don't think it had been produced at that time. And interspersed into this peripheral vision, I could set all the colours the way I wanted, because of the peripheral vision. The critique on the painting said: "This is a great anti-war statement." This is it really, but there was a lot more than that. It was the reason to get off the chair and do it. Oh, another thing. I met Paul Berg, a reporter from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, 1964, he had gone on seven helicopter combat missions in Vietnam. He came back, he was a photo journalist, and he put all this in the paper for the people in St.Louis. They got the news. He put me on the cover of the St. Louis Post Dispatch with my new work, in 1961 it was. First I met him in '61, and then in '64 he put me on the cover again. It was Roy Lichtenstein and myself in this magazine, this Sunday magazine. That was during an election year. During an election year in those decades, Russia would always make a move on another country. Artists were very optimistic, they hoped for a change, they hoped for a better president, they hoped for something more democratic, more interesting. And as the years went by, things were bad, things got to be worse. And I felt like I had a ball and chain around my ankle, and I had to go back to work. I did the same thing in the next election, in '68. I was working for Eugene McCarthy, and then he became a poet on television! And nobody wants a poet for a president! Most people don't! So then I shifted to Robert Kennedy, and then he got assassinated. When assassinations happened it was very depressing. I started off then with a totally non-objective-looking painting without imagery in it called "Horse Blinders", because Carlo Derker, the co-director, along with Pontus Hulten, of the Moderne Museet, said to me, "Jim", he was a young Marxist, "Jim, we never hang a hard painting on the left when you walk in a room, we always hang a tough painting on the right, because, as you know, the left is always softer!" I thought "that's like a fighter, it's like a boxer!" So I called the painting "Horse Blinders", you could see right from left, you had to go straight ahead, totally non-objective-looking when I started. And as I worked on it through the year, I became angrier and angrier, and I put in imagery. The election year changed me.

MH: But would you say the political context was understood by the public all the time?

JR: I don't think so. I think it was just the change in one's own emotions.

MH: So in fact it didn't really matter?

JR: It wasn't very specific.

MH: Right.

JR: It wasn't as specific in "Horse Blinders" as it was in the "F-111" painting.

MH: But the election years mean very vivid times for you obviously.

JR: They were always vivid times. In '68 I had a show with Ileana Sonnabend in Paris on Rue Mazarin – an installation of walk-through miler paintings called "Forest Ranger". And the revolution started in Paris. People wearing red sweaters and they'd go (click) and hit somebody and run away. People drank too much, and the whole place erupted. I thought it was students: it was auto workers, labour unions, and students. It was like an earthquake. I went home. And then it was like an earthquake in the United States, too. '68. Another idea about that. I used to know, I met Marcel Duchamp a couple of times, he was very conversational, very nice. Young students thought he was unapproachable. He was such a mystery, you couldn't really get near him at all. It was quite on the contrary. He was very friendly, a friendly, social person. And I remember asking him if he ever studied Eastern philosophy? And he said, "Not really, I read "Zen and the Art of Archery", but that's about it". I brought him a sunflower flyswatter and a Mona Lisa New York button, when I saw him. He sat around and swatted imaginary flies. You'd hit something with this flyswatter and the flower would open up at the back of the flyswatter. It was really unusual. So, he died, and this is the political part, he died. He had a retrospective at the Modern Museum. The Modern asked Leo Castelli and I to come over to the show to be interviewed. Leo chickened out, and he left. Bing, he went out the door, and he left me! And there was the television. So they said "Mr. Rosenquist, you have been criticized for having political content in your work. Why do you think Marcel Duchamp never had anything political in his work?" I said, "Stop the camera!" I went across the street and I had a drink. I came back and I said, "OK, roll the camera." They asked me the same question, and I said, "Because it probably never occurred to him." What are you going to say?

MH: OK! To change the subject, so that you don't need a drink, I'd 'like to talk to you about newer developments in mass media, like in the music industry, film channels and MTV, and some kinds of new film techniques and qualities, things like David Lynch, who has used some techniques which, I think, are already in your paintings.

JR: Really?

MH: In a completely different medium. When I see some of your paintings, it occurs to me that if I look at broad things, they are like flashes to me.

JR: Oh, I see.

MH: It's flashes, and sometimes you are close to a subject, sometimes far away. They hit you, one after another.

JR: Really?

MH: I think it's a very powerful impression that I get from your paintings. And I think that these techniques are also involved in the new kind of film technologies. I was wondering, if you are interested in that at all?

JR: Well, in 1968 I had a film crew. I studied film, really on my own. I bought some good cameras, I had a Mitchell 35mm high speed camera. I had Melvin Sokolsky from Hollywood, I had my old brother-in-law, Gordy, I had a British kid, Michael Rowles, who is now with the BBC. We had our own film crew and what we were really doing was doing experiments that everybody knows already. You know, just school. I mean lighting, doing a lot of tricks, a lot of things just for practice. The reason was I wanted to do a movie and I wanted to be familiar with the film, the film emulsions, the colour, the cost, everything. At that time, just to go back, ten hours of Kodak 35mm color cost 36,000 bucks. Ten hours of 16 mm was 9,000 bucks. I wonder what it is now! It was like 160 bucks a roll for the colour. Oh, and black and white was $90 a roll, for ten minutes. That's for ten minutes, so ten hours I had ideas. But, what happened was that all of us had to go back to our regular jobs, because we didn't have the money. Then I realized in making a film, where would I fit in? Like the new French nouvelle vague cinema people, they did everything. They wrote it, they directed it, they acted in it, they did everything. They did these movies, like Godard, they became like sketches of things, very good, but not like Hollywood, not anything a Hollywood film. So, I had film, little snippets and pieces, maybe like what you're describing. What you see in film and what is just part of one, was a banquet. I actually asked Vera List to be in it. She said, "Oh, any time!" – but I didn't do it. It's very, very well dressed people at a banquet table, eating, Vera List in a string evening gown, very fancy. But then I have animals come and eat too. Horses eat off the table, and squirrels and racoons, and everything else, disrupting the situation. I was also very interested in Buñuel movies which really blew me away. And then also the cinematographer that Dennis Hopper had for "Easy Rider", I liked juxtapositions, close-ups. That came from painting right here, a few blocks away, painting billboards in Times Square. Also being interested in the outdoor cinema with automobiles, where you drive right into an outdoor theatre. There is this huge screen and just concentrating on the lower right hand corner. That's all. Just gazing at the action bing bing bing bing bong in the corner of this huge screen. Sometimes, I couldn't get a parking space! 

MH: Abstract then!

JR: It was very abstract, and very unusual. And then my old teachers, from years back, would say, "Jim, you know, don't finish just the middle of the picture, finish every corner.". Another influence was also the photo editor of Paris Match magazine. Tell you why. On the front page of the New York Times was a little black and white photograph during the Vietnam War. Its caption was "United States Marines, without their shirts, under fire somewhere in Vietnam". And they're running through the sand, holding their shirts. That same photograph, in colour, two pages, in Paris Match magazine, and all it says is "La rouge fleur" like "The red flower blossoms on dead marine's chest". And the guy had been shot right through the chest. 

MH: Oh really?

JR: The blood was going like this, and he was dead on his feet. Well that's graphic!

MH: That's powerful.

JR: Very powerful. Involvement in cinema is such a long process, even financially it takes years to get something done, something good.

MH: I wanted to talk a little bit about your working process. How you develop some of your compositions. The last time I saw you, you had a small maquette of a painting with you. I saw that you used overlapping images, that you pasted one on top of the other. I was wondering several things. How do you come up with some of the compositions if they are composed of multiple images? Are the composition and the colouring pretty much set when you start to paint the actual painting? How fast do you then paint the painting? Maybe from your experience as a billboard painter, are you completely focused on one painting, or do you developing these things over a while, and let rest for a while, and then go back to them? I am interested in this kind of working process.

JR: Well, I try to develop paintings that don't have any titles, and then, when Leo Castelli sees the painting, he says, "Jim, what is the title?" I have to think of a title. Then, when the collector gets the painting, if he gets a title, he gets something extra. And Leo's license plate on his car is "UNTITLED", that's interesting! Anyway. I get started by peculiar juxtapositions of thoughts and ideas. It can come from anywhere, and I say, "God, that's unusual! That is really bizarre! But it's exciting! How could I do something pictorially with these ideas?" I know how to paint. I know how to paint in one way, because right down the block here I used to paint things good enough to sell. I mean that was my idea of learning how to paint if you could sell a shirt, or sell spaghetti, or sell beer, and they like it good enough, that means you could paint. If something occurs to me, I'll try to take photographs. I was looking at the Gulf of Mexico, it was very serene one morning. It was very quiet, like a mirror. So I had two of my assistants hold up a piece of clear Plexiglas on the horizon, like this. Then I poured gasoline on the Plexiglas, and I lit it on fire. I had a fire coming off the horizon line with a mirror above. And it was all natural. I kept doing it over and over. I took a hundred photographs. And then a strange thing happened. One flame looked like the "Winged Victory of Samothrace", it was really bizarre. And then other flames looked like sculptures. Some were corny even. Some looked just like flames. That was the thing. So I just kept that material lying around. Then I discovered some other unusual ideas pictorially, like you say in the movies. And I've learned that pictorial invention sometimes starts very mechanically. I visited Doug Trumbull in Los Angeles years ago, maybe twenty years ago. He had done the effects for the movie "2001". Then he did many many commercials for NBC, CBS, and ABC. What he did was simply take a lithograph drying fan instead of a piece of wood drying a stone, he took a piece of plastic, clear plastic, and whirled it around on a shaft. Then on that he lettered "NBC Television" with a high-speed Mitchell or other cameras, so that the trails of the letters going through the dark made (whistles), like you've seen on television, you've seen these letters disappear into infinity. And then he got more complicated and did it from the angles, and so forth. The infinity thing he did in the movie "2001", took a 35mm camera, laid it on its side, and very mechanically he cut off, blackened half the frame and filmed this effect on one half and turned it around and had an infinity line, so it looked like flying into a big abyss of colour. A lot of things are very, very mechanical. So I accumulate the photographs. I have all this stuff around all the time, all of this material. I keep experimenting, trying to change pictorial invention. The picture, the look, the space, the identification of things, so that it doesn't look totally non-objective, and it still grabs you. That's hard to do. Because in a totally non-objective painting, of which there are great painters, for example Hans Hofmann is a great non-objective artist. There are some French artists, also German artists who are great. But what grabs you is the plasticity of the picture plane. There seems to be maybe something else lacking, but it's hard to say. That's still an argument. My own argument in myself. I've had some strange experiences, recently that I'm going to talk about in Japan. My friend Melvin Sokolsky out in Beverly Hills said, "Jimmy, come over, I'm digitally correcting a movie". So I went over, and it was with some moles, people who work all night, and they'd show a frame, and he'd say, "Now bring out the bushes and take the shadow off of her face." And they went "tshk, tshk, tshk, tshk", that's the way it looked. "Now that matches the next frame." He was trying to put the film together. Then, about six weeks ago I was in Paris at the Louvre and I saw the two paintings, the Vermeer paintings from the 15th century. The "Astronomer" and the "Geographer", they were hanging on a wall. I looked and looked at those paintings. And it looked like he took a one-hair brush and developed the chiaroscuro in those paintings by using complementary colors and not black. Correct me if I'm wrong, because I really don't know. But it looked like he was in advance of pointilism, only in a different manner. I was saying to myself, "Those paintings couldn't be digitally changed with the methods they have now!" So Vermeer, in the 15th century was already still ahead of us! I think the missing link isn't whether it's Fuji or Kodak, I think that's the missing link. Because the depth in those Vermeers is just incredible. It was beyond photography, and whatever he put in that, it was like, wow! It makes everything else look very mechanical. 

MH: Would you say your composition is pretty much finished when you start painting?

JR: When I arrived in New York, the heroes of the young artists were Bill de Kooning, Franz Kline, and a number of action painters, more than, say, Rothko or others, although I love his work. The idea for a student was, to take a beautiful, pristine canvas, make a mark on it, and then you have to do something, cause you made a big mess. But that mess was supposed to inspire the young artist. That went on and on. Then, I remember being on a panel discussion with Marshall McLuhan up in Toronto, for Philip Morris, and they asked him, "Mr. McLuhan, can you explain the metaphor." He says, "A man's grasp must extend his reach or what's a meta for?" So in painting, it seems, I wanted my gesture to go all the way across the canvas instead of it just being like a child's angel wing in the snow where the gesture of size is this arm. Personally, I wanted to be able to paint the Sistine Chapel! I wanted to paint anything. That's why I painted billboard signs. I squared the small images up and then made them larger. I'm not talking about quality now, but it was just the ability to do this quantity. To do this size. To answer your question, after a long time, I plan a painting out as far as I can think. Then I start to paint it from a sketch. When I'm just about finished, I may change the painting 25%. I may change it ever so slightly. Because making major changes, like de Kooning used to do – he would scrape all the paint off the whole painting and start over again. I used to know Bill fairly well, very nice man, and I think the poverty from his early years really almost dictated an aesthetic. In his anxiousness to do another painting, he wouldn't wait for another painting to be stretched or stretch it himself, because he didn't have the money. He'd scrape it off and start another one! So in many of his works there are many paintings under the original. I also think that's the case with Arshile Gorky. I knew some of his friends, but I never got to meet him. If you look at his drawings on good paper – God, they're sandpapered. Like Rembrandt, they're practically worn through to the other side, which is because he didn't have another piece of paper. And that developed an aesthetic. Concept Art or concept work, that is governed by memory. Salvador Dalí had a great title called "The Persistence of Memory" for a painting. This painting I made called "Star Thief" was about the lure of something, the lure of a star. To get there you have to get senators and congressmen to build you a rocketship, and then you go towards that point of light, because it's attractive. When you get there, in that vicinity, you get so far, you see another point of light much further, and you make a detour and you go to that point. Now you couldn't go to the second thought without doing all the work to get to the first part. That's the juncture where maybe you do another painting instead of staying with the same painting.

MH: If you're developing a composition, would you say that the size of the actual painting is already something that you have set in your mind, or does this develop?

JR: No. The size is sort of thought about. I like to make big paintings because it's like a physical workout, but I don't make them just because they're large. When you're around large works, they're a big ambience of colour, just like some great murals. You can't quite see them, you just feel some warmth. It's like being in a golden cut rectangle room which is about the size of a short shoebox. There are a number of rooms in Europe and just a few in the United States with that beautiful proportion. When you walk into those rooms, you feel good. I don't know if you've maybe experienced that. You say, "Oh, not bad!" You don't know why, but it seems to be proportionately human. And it's mathematical, but it's still very amazing. And all the golden mean rectangles were used by so many Renaissance artists for composition. 

MH: OK. Thank you very much.

JR: You're welcome.

(New York, April 1997)