Pop and beyond
SIZE is crucial for the expression of certain artists' ideas. One thinks of the paintings of Tintoretto and Tiepolo, Matisse's ``The Dance'' and Picasso's ``Guernica,'' as well as the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and Color-Field painters. James Turrell's light constructions need considerable space for their effectiveness, and Robert Irwin's site-conditioned projects often cover significant urban areas. The list is extensive and continues to grow, largely because an increasing number of artists b elieve that art should be experienced spatially and environmentally, and not merely visually from a distance. Two major Pop Art figures, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, have given legitimacy to this belief by producing painted images that range in size from human scale to the height and width of auditorium walls. Rosenquist, in particular, appears to be a muralist at heart. His ``The Persistence of Electrical Nymphs in Space,'' which occupied an entire wall of New York's Leo Castelli Gallery this past summer, is 171/2 feet high and 46 feet wide. But even it is dwarfed by ``Horse Blinders,'' which runs to
84 feet, and ``F-111,'' which measures 86. Most of his pictures are so large, and dominate their space and their viewers so dramatically, that even what appears at first to be a painting of normal dimensions often turns out to be 10 or 15 feet square.
Two questions immediately spring to mind: ``Why paint anything so big?'' and ``What do these immense things represent?'' An easy answer to the first is that Rosenquist earned his living for a while painting billboards in New York, and so it was only natural that he should employ billboard techniques and scale in his paintings. While at least partially true, this doesn't fully resolve the issue of why he would continue to work so monumentally for a full quarter-century. Public and critical expectation mi ght have had something to do with it, but it seems more likely that the primary reason hinges upon the nature of his ideas and the format within which they could be communicated most effectively.
With the second question -- what the images represent -- we find ourselves on firmer ground, for Rosenquist has discussed his art freely. ``I decided,'' he explains, ``to make pictures of fragments, images that would spill off the canvas instead of recede into it. . . . I thought each fragment would be identified at a different rate of speed, and that I would paint them as realistically as possible. Then I thought about the kind of imagery I'd use. I didn't want to use anything brand-new because people
might be passionate about it. But I didn't want to use anything antique either. . . . I wanted to find images that were . . . a little out of style, but hadn't reached the point of nostalgia.''
He began, in 1960, by juxtaposing a likeness of President Kennedy, portions of a woman's hands holding a piece of cake, and a section of a car. This was followed by an undivided triptych illustrating men's fashions in neckties, and then by a succession of paintings in which everything from human faces to spaghetti, light bulbs, chairs, and automobile tires were combined in novel and often startling ways.
Although the overall effect was highly provocative, his intentions were still unclear. Judith Goldman, in her book on the artist, states: ``Rosenquist says he didn't know what he was doing at the time, that he was reacting against everything. He didn't want to paint Abstract Expressionist pictures with drips, and he didn't want to paint hard-edge pictures without drips, so he filled up the canvas with fragments of images.''
By 1962, however, his ideas had come into focus, and by 1964 they and his talents were as strategically deployed as Eisenhower's invasion forces on the eve of D-Day. Rosenquist's big victory came in 1965 with the exhibition of ``F-111,'' a mammoth, 51-piece pictorial statement about war, defense spending, taxes, and obsolete weapons. It was the art-world sensation of the year, traveled to numerous European museums, and returned in triumph to an important show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968.
Rosenquist's -- and Pop Art's -- reputation was secured by all this attention, and by the success of the other leaders of the movement. No other American artists, not even Grant Wood, had ever been so well-known by the public -- or so thoroughly inundated by both hype and critical acclaim. Warhol, in particular, became an art-world celebrity, surpassing even Dali in notoriety and remaining beyond serious criticism until Minimalism brought another set of values into American art.
During that period and right up to the present, Rosenquist has remained the thoroughgoing professional by consolidating his resources and doing whatever he could to become a better artist. Even those who dislike what he does admit that his performances have been impressive and that he continues to improve. He may apply paint with all the sensitivity with which new cars are painted in Detroit, and use color as blatantly as it has ever been used, but there is a level of sophistication and dignity about hi s recent work that lifts it above the accomplishments of Pop Art and makes it worthy of considerable respect.
This essay completes Mr. Wolff's series, ``The Many Masks of Modern Art.'' His commentary on the subject continues elsewhere in today's Monitor with the first of two summing-up pages.