by Cristy Meiners, producer
Artist James Rosenquist turned his early billboard painting skills into a 50 year and going fine art career. One of his earliest paintings to dissect everyday mass-media images is I Love You with My Ford (1961), in this case, a picture of a Ford, an image of two people whispering, and a mass of red spaghetti. Of this picture, Rosenquist wrote in his memoir Painting Below Zero: “When I copied a 1940s spaghetti illustration, I had to ask myself, why am I doing this? I didn’t honestly know. It was just an instinct about images as pure form… in a sense the spaghetti is like an abstract expressionist painting. De Kooning loved it. He said it was sexy.”
De Kooning was right: there is something oddly sexy about those three disparate images spliced together. Perhaps it’s because American automobiles from the ‘50s always feel so romantic and idealistic. But it could also be because as a billboard artist Rosenquist saw the mundane, like a picture of plain old spaghetti, in an entirely different way. After all, in order to make these images work on a billboard, he had to paint them as blocks of color, square by square, until the pieces came together to form the whole image. By bringing that perspective to the viewer, spaghetti becomes something entirely new, like shiny red snakes with who-knows what intentions.
Rosenquist had his first career retrospective in 1972 at the Whitney Museum in New York City when he was 39 years old, and his work hangs in museums and galleries all over the world. He made the news this last year when a freak accident destroyed his Florida home and studio. And yet, I was amazed by Rosenquist’s up-beat attitude, even just a few months after he lost so much. He said that the fire helped him realize how truly unimportant all of his things were, and how grateful he was that no one was hurt in the accident. And he’s still working, preparing for a show and working on commissions. While Rosenquist doesn’t know where he’s going to rebuild he sounds hopeful. Hope seems to me to be the best result of a lifetime of creativity.