Conversation: Painter James Rosenquist

BY Arts Desk  December 23, 2009 at 2:56 PM EST

From signs and billboard advertisements that loomed high above Times Square to canvases filled with images from popular culture that helped shape the world of art from the early 1960s, James Rosenquist has been painting on a grand scale for more than 60 years. His very full life of work, art and artists is recounted in a new memoir, titled “Painting Below Zero,” co-written with David Dalton. James Rosenquist joined me recently at our studio.

Full transcript after the jump…

JEFFREY BROWN: James Rosenquist has been painting for more than 60 years, first signs and billboard advertisements that loomed high above Time Square and other public places and then canvases filled with images from popular culture that helped shape the world of art from the early 1960s on. His very full life of work, art and artists is recounted in a new memoir titled “Painting Below Zero,” co-written with David Dalton, James Rosenquist joints me now. Welcome to you.

JAMES ROSENQUIST: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you worked as a, I mean there are marvelous sections in here about your work as a sign painter and then billboard painter in Minneapolis and then in New York.

JAMES ROSENQUIST: I started billboard painting in Minneapolis, and I went to General Outdoor Advertising, and I said, I could so that. They said, Oh yeah…we can always use a good man around here. So he says, paint these two heads for Coca-Cola, and I did it and he said, I’m sorry kid you haven’t got the swing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You figured it out.

JAMES ROSENQUIST: I went back to see him about nine months later, say Henry Bevin’s was the man, and I said I can do that. And he says, Oh yeah — same thing — we need a good man. Gave me another try out, and he said, not bad…now move the whole nose over a half-an-inch. Very fussy. Coca-cola is very fussy. Ok. I painted that whole damn thing there. There’s my mom looking at it with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what’s interesting, those images — the advertising and the popular cultural around you — then became part of your, became your art. So how did that work?

JAMES ROSENQUIST: Well, that’s something else again, because in the history of art if you think about it, every painting, everything is like looking through an aperture or a window. Even the great paintings in the Louvre — huge 30-40 foot — are looking at vista at an aperture. Ok, so I painted, when I got to New York transferred into the International Sign Pictorial Painters Union Local 230, run by Italian guys, tough guys. I painted huge, the Astor Victoria Theatre — 395 feet wide, 58 feet high. I painted huge movie stars’ faces 30 feet high with a huge soft cheek. So with these large images, I thought I could — it’s the title of the book, “Painting Below Zero,” meaning painting below non-objectivity by introducing imagery back into art after French non-objective painting and painting that has only pure color and form, which is zero. How could I get below that? So I thought these images are so close to you, they are really in back of you. They don’t mean anything anymore, so I could use images of things, generic things to produce a painting where I could adjust the speed of recognition of the imagery and that’s all it was.

JEFFREY BROWN: So but are the images meant to convey some kind of meaning about culture, or were they for the form and color? How did you use them?

JAMES ROSENQUIST: Well in the beginning, no. The beginning was just large imagery. Then later I developed into something else and that was I did a painting called “F-111,” which is a wrap-around-room painting where I wanted to personally adjust everything you look at — was that color because of the peripheral vision that comes in the eye, because the color just like this room. We’re all this color because of this color coming here. If it was all day-glow red in here, you would look green. So anyway, I talked to Barney Newman who was an artist then, and Barney says — he would make big long paintings with just one line in it — and he says, That’s it, that’s what it is. And so what it was, it questions self-consciousness because of all the color that came in the side of your eye, so that was another continuum of, it’s like my own education, educating myself, or my search, my search for — and I’m still searching.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one more question: Why write a memoir? I mean, was it fun to go back and look at because you lived quite a life, you knew a lot of people, you knew all the artists?

JAMES ROSENQUIST: No, no wait. Two things. David Dalton called me, and I knew him since he was a kid. He used to hang around the art world with his beautiful sister, like Barbie dolls really. And he said, Jim, why don’t we do a book before you get Alzheimer’s. I said, Ok. So I sat down with a tape and tape and tape and tape and tape and tape and tape. And the other thing, too, it was easier for me, because each one of my paintings is like a little time capsule with the environment around it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So they would tell you about that history.

JAMES ROSENQUIST: I was having a good time, I was married, I had a child, I got sick, I had a crash, I was down, up, down and everything from each picture. I still see that, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right the book is “Painting Below Zero” Notes and a Life in Art.” James Rosenquist, nice to talk to you.

JAMES ROSENQUIST: Nice to meet you. I’m a fan of yours.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you.