James Rosenquist working on 'Time Dust' at Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1992
Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2002
Photographer: Marabeth COHEN-TYLER

James Rosenquist was born in 1933 in America’s Midwest. He originally made a name for himself as an artist associated with the Pop Art movement in New York in the 1960s. This was a style which drew its subject–matter from the everyday: comics, newspapers, television, pulp magazines and advertisements. Rosenquist supported himself as a billboard artist and throughout his career has continued to work on a grand scale and with familiar subject–matter.

From September 1988 to December 1989 and then in 1992, Rosenquist worked with the printer publisher Ken Tyler to produce the large–scale paper–pulp series Welcome to the water planet and the related works of House of Fire and Time Dust. He explored the problems of a growing consumer culture and militarism which might lead to the degradation, even destruction, of the earth, explaining:

The water planet is earth. A visitor from another universe comes by and we say, “Hey, welcome to this mess! It’s hell, it’s burning up, but come on in”!1

For his group of paper works, the artist evokes the colourful and sensual riches of the earth and brilliant flora of Florida, set within a wondrous star–lit universe. Rosenquist combines this subject matter with contrasting images about the mistreatment and destruction of the earth; with fighter planes or missiles of destruction, their torpedos in the form of ruby–red lipsticks, or jet engines in the form of acid–green or glowing orange pencils. These works he made in luminous colours and on a massive scale, revealing earth as a rich but vulnerable ‘water planet’.

As Rosenquist’s career advanced, both as a painter and maker of prints, his progress in each medium was decidedly uneven. In fact, the artist had become disillusioned with printmaking. Preferring to work on a large scale, he found painting to be a more immediate and more inventive way of making art. In contrast, he came to consider that prints were too small, too rigid in technique and lacked spontaneity. When, in 1987, Tyler wrote to Rosenquist inviting him to work at his new purpose–built workshop at Mount Kisco in upstate New York, he needed to be convinced the experience would be worthwhile – that making paper works and lithography with Tyler would be different from his earlier experiences. In response, Tyler promised Rosenquist that he would provide handmade paper as big as the artist could imagine, and then sent him sketches of his premises and equipment. By the next year, Rosenquist had agreed to work at Tyler’s studio.

When he arrived Rosenquist had an idea, a convoluted one about slow heating popcorn, which he hoped would develop as an image linked to his growing concern about the state of planet earth – the only water planet known in existence in the universe at this time. The artist wished to remain as spontaneous as he could, untrammelled by long–held preconceived ideas: ‘I wanted them to come right out of the air’.2 To work in this manner required a print workshop that could be innovative and on the spot.

Rosenquist was pleased to be working with Tyler on such a momentous project because he considered him ‘probably the best printing technician in the world’. Unlike other printers who, when faced with a difficult task put to them by the artist would shake their heads and say sorry they couldn’t deal with the new ideas:

With Ken, he’d look at you, walk away and the next day he would have devised something to make the new idea work. Nothing would stop him – he would go to any length. He would never say no.3

To this end, a large deckle box was constructed to make sheets of handmade paper about 150 x 305 cm. Tyler also designed a huge printing press for the project.

From his early days as a billboard artist it was Rosenquist’s habit to work from a small drawing, often using collage, and upscale the composition to a gargantuan size. Deconstructing his compositions into their component parts, the artist and printer decided to make the curved lines from cross–hatching (so characteristic of Rosenquist’s work in general at this time) and print them using colour lithography. These lithographic elements would then form a collage laid within a brilliantly coloured paper pulp sheet. The separate colours were made by filling metal moulds, cut according to Rosenquist’s design, with paper pulp placed on top of the large sheets of handmade paper.

At the initial stages of the project this method of using metal moulds, or ‘cookie cutters’, was clumsy and time consuming, and the paper pulp lacked consistency. It was just ‘so awful’, Rosenquist remembered. The paper pulp was messy and difficult to control. Rosenquist was also frustrated by the lack of spontaneity in the whole procedure. He was losing momentum. To counteract these problems, Tyler worked on the consistency of the pulp and the shapes of the moulds, but still there were problems in translating Rosenquist’s designs into paper form. The artist developed templates for each form, based on his drawings. Tyler drew on his own technical expertise and constant desire for experimentation and innovation to solve problems in the workshop. Where moulds could not be used, he used a spray gun to achieve gradations of brilliant and unusual colour across the pulp on which the lithographic elements were collaged. The technique was a success and the results were glorious, with an appearance of apparent spontaneity and effortlessness, which belied the hours of preparation and a technique born of experimentation.

Jane Kinsman
originally published in Imprint, winter 2006, volume 41, number 2, pp 36–7

1James Rosenquist, quoted in Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A retrospective, New York: Guggenheim, c. 2003, pp. 127–8.
2 James Rosenquist in Welcome to the Water Planet, (documentary film), New York: Seven Hills Production, 1989.
3 James Rosenquist in conversation with Jane Kinsman 9 March 2006.

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated January 2017