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Paperworks by James Rosenquist

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10 June – 12 September 2006

All I have to be now is brilliant.

The American artist James Rosenquist was pleased he was now exhibiting with the prestigious New York Gallery, Acquavella. ‘All I have to be now is brilliant’, he recently mused in conversation. In his career the elusive ‘need to be brilliant’ is something the artist has constantly searched for. Sometimes it seemed he was successful, sometimes he wasn’t, and he could never quite work out why, other than it sold.1 Rosenquist has an unusual modus operandi to achieve his goal. Art historian Judith Goldman calls it a ‘taste for a convoluted idea’.2 He likes to draw together visual elements or notions that fascinate or intrigue, which he then places together to form a complex composition. With this process, whether the artist is brilliant or not can only be judged on completion.

In the mid 1980s, when Rosenquist agreed to work at the print studio at Tyler Graphics Ltd at Mount Kisco, in New York State, he was required to be 'brilliant'. The artist had been invited by Ken Tyler, printer and publisher, to explore the idea of making some paper pulp works. These came to form the series Welcome to the water planet and the works House of fire and Time dust, which were produced in 1988 and 1989. Rosenquist had been a long-time admirer of Tyler and his working methods. ‘Ken liked to get his hands dirty’ and he was ‘voracious’ in the studio in his enthusiasm for new ideas about printmaking, new techniques and new materials.

James Rosenquist, ' Where the water goes' 1989, colour pressed, paper pulp, lithographic collage Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

James Rosenquist Where the water goes 1989, colour pressed paper pulp, lithographic collage, National Gallery of Australia © James Rosenquist. Licensed by VAGA & Viscopy, Australia

Tyler’s approach was in stark contrast to Rosenquist’s early experience in printmaking, when he made his first lithographs in 1965 and 1966 with publisher Tatanya Grosman at Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York. He found the atmosphere of the studio ‘old fashioned’ with more traditional technical methods used, leisurely lunches and no sense of urgency.

As a young man Rosenquist had long desired to become an artist. Born in provincial Grand Forks in North Dakota in 1933, he studied at the University of Minnesota, supporting himself by painting Phillips 66 Gasoline signs as he travelled to the border of the State of Iowa. Rosenquist then graduated to painting billboards, including the billboards advertising Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, the film first released in 1954. He painted two versions of this up and down the highways leading to Minneapolis. The following year he left the Midwest for New York to pursue an artistic career, winning a scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York. There he continued painting billboards to support himself. His work now graced the skyline of New York’s Times Square and Brooklyn and Rosenquist gained a certain notoriety when he was featured in an article published on 6 June 1960 and dubbed ‘Broadway’s biggest artist’. In this article, not noted for its understatement, the overly enthusiastic UPI journalist commented further that while ‘bigness isn’t always greatness, his creations nonetheless dwarf the most grandiose artistic accomplishments of Rivera and Michelangelo’.3

By the 1960s, the experience of painting on a large scale influenced his own art. Rosenquist began working on huge canvases and incorporating figures from the mass media. Because of their very size, the individual forms became abstracted when viewed close-up. The effect that scale changed figures from realistic images to abstract ones was something Rosenquist delighted in.

Rosenquist’s growing popularity as an artist had him regularly showing at Pop Art’s mecca, the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The Castelli stable of artists included Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. All were in some way associated with Pop Art. This was a movement that evolved in the late 1950s, and embraced ideas, subjects and techniques of popular culture. Pop saw the adoption of forms, colours and methods of mass culture drawn from advertising, television, film, music, comics, pulp novels and magazines. Rosenquist was one of the central artists who drew inspiration from such sources. However, unlike other Pop artists, Rosenquist’s art method of the convoluted idea made his imagery not immediately clear. It was an art of fragments juxtaposed in often apparently bizarre, but at the time oddly pleasing, sequences.

Rosenquist’s association with Ken Tyler goes back many years to the time when he was keen to be further involved in printmaking to reach a wider audience through using new media. The artist and printer had planned to work at Gemini GEL in Los Angeles decades earlier. However, as fate would have it, Rosenquist had a car accident in 1971 in which the artist, his wife and child were seriously injured and so nothing came of their first attempt to work together in the early 1970s. In 1974 they met in Bedford New York when Tyler had moved to the east coast of the USA, but again nothing eventuated.4 The 1970s were a testing time for Rosenquist, both personally and as an artist, and he said of these years that they were ‘not a very good time in my art work at all’.5

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. He found painting more immediate, on a larger scale, and a 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.

The new premises at Mount Kisco were established to further Tyler’s desire to provide the utmost assistance for artists who worked with him on print projects. In discussion it became apparent that the intention was that Rosenquist and the printer would develop a project – perhaps to make some paper pulp works. Tyler had a long held an interest in handmade papers. He had worked on collaboration in 1973–74 with Robert Rauschenberg at the Richard de Bas paper mill in France, where the artist made 12 paper works. Tyler then continued with paper pulp projects in the 1970s with artists Elsworth Kelly, Keith Noland and later, in 1979, David Hockney. Hockney produced spectacular paper pulp works, notably in his Paper Pools series, which brought paper works to new heights in terms of scale, colour and textures.

When he arrived, Rosenquist had an idea, a convoluted one, which he hoped would develop as an image – slow heating popcorn taking its time – and tying this notion together with his growing concern about the state of planet earth – the only water planet known in existence in the universe at this time. Arriving at the workshop, Rosenquist had the same need ‘to be brilliant’. He mulled over such disparate thoughts. Telling Tyler of his initial idea, the printer joked, ‘Well, that was one idea, where are the rest of your ideas?’. As an artist Rosenquist liked to work with fluid concepts initially, that would then take shape during his time at the Tyler studio, which is what happened for the project that became Water planet: ‘So then we’re getting into this print called The bird of paradise approaches the hot water planet. He says, “What’s the next idea?” So I brought them the next idea. He says, “Oh great! That’s fabulous. Where’s the next one?” I said, “I don’t have any idea yet”.’6

James Rosenquist 'Space dust' 1989, paper pulp, planographic, collage, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002

James Rosenquist Space dust 1989, paper pulp, planographic, collage, National Gallery of Australia, purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002 © James Rosenquist. Licensed by VAGA & Viscopy, Australia

In fact, Rosenquist wished to remain as spontaneous as he could, untrammelled by long-held or preconceived ideas. ‘I wanted them to come right out of the air’.7 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.’ For the project Tyler devised a huge deckle box to make hand-made papers about 150 x 305 cm, and a giant printing press for lithography and etching (305 x 610 cm).

Over the months as the pair worked together a series of large-scale paper pulp works evolved, using huge sheets of handmade paper made on the TGL premises. The project was inspired by the exotic vegetation of Florida (Rosenquist's studio was in Aripeka on the Gulf of Mexico), and reflected his disquiet with what was happening to the earth. All this combined to project Rosenquist’s concern, ‘We all live on the water planet’, the artist discussed at an interview. ‘John Glenn [the first American astronaut to orbit the earth] said when he went into space he turned around and looked at Earth, and he wondered why so many people were spending so much money on blowing it up, and they actually lived on it. It seems very bizarre’.8 Rosenquist’s series of paper works were intended to act both as a celebration and a warning to what might happen to the water planet.

Rosenquist included imagery that evoked the colourful and sensual riches of the earth and brilliant flora from Florida, set within a wondrous star-lit universe. This he combined with contrasting ideas about the mistreatment and destruction of the earth represented by detritus, pots and pans, rocket ships, fighter planes or missiles of destruction with the addition of torpedos in the form of ruby red lipsticks or jet engines as acid green pencils. ‘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!"'9

James Rosenquist 'Sky hole' 1989, colour pressed paper pulp with lithographic collage, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002

James Rosenquist Sky hole 1989, colour pressed paper pulp with lithographic collage, National Gallery of Australia, purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002 © James Rosenquist. Licensed by VAGA & Viscopy, Australia

The first idea that came to form was The bird of paradise approaches the hot water planet. From his early days as a billboard artist it was Rosenquist’s habit to work from a small drawing, often a collage of various images, and upscale the composition and develop this to be a gargantuan size. Deconstructing the image into its component parts, artist and printer decided to make the curved lines of cross-hatching, so characteristic of Rosenquist’s work in general at this time, and it would then be printed in colour lithography. These lithographic elements would then form a collage that would be laid for a brilliantly coloured paper pulp sheet. The separate colours were made by filling different moulds with paper pulp placed on top of the large sheets of handmade paper, which were cut out in metal according to Rosenquist’s design.

At the initial stages of the project the method of using metal moulds, or ‘cookie cutters’, was clumsy, time-consuming, and the paper pulp lacked consistency – it was just ‘so awful’, he remembered. The paper pulp was messy and not easy 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 a group of templates that took a great deal of time to make, based on his drawings and cut for each form he wanted. Tyler drew on his own technical expertise and the constant desire for experimentation and innovation to solve problems in the workshop. For the large areas of graded colour, impossible to achieve using mould shapes, Tyler proposed to use a spray gun, used for applying stucco to walls in houses, which could spray the 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 a look of apparent spontaneity and effortlessness, which belied the hours of preparation and a technique born of experimentation.

Rosenquist was delighted with his paper pulp works. ‘The wonderful thing about paper pulp is the colour. If you take a magnifying glass, you’ll see a little fuzz rising like smoke off the surface of this handmade paper – like doing giant watercolours and letting this watercolour seep together at the perfect moment … ’10

Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books


1 James Rosenquist in conversation with Jane Kinsman, 9 March 2006. All quotes refer to this interview unless otherwise indicated.
2 Judith Goldman, ‘Whenever you’re ready, let me know’, in James Rosenquist: Welcome to the water planet and house of fire 1988–1989, Mount Kisco, United States: Tyler Graphics Ltd, 1989, p 13. For further reading see Constance W Glenn, Complete Graphic Works 1962–1992, New York: Rizzoli, 1993, cats 214–23, Time dust, illustrated, pp 160–68.
3 United Press International, 6 June 1960, quoted in Judith Goldman, James Rosenquist, New York: Viking Penguin, 1985, p 25.
4 Ken Tyler in correspondence with Jane Kinsman, 18 April 2006.
5 James Rosenquist referring to the years 1971 to 1977, quoted in Constance W Glenn, Time dust: James Rosenquist, Complete Graphics: 1962–1992, New York: Rizzoli, 1993, p 51.
6 James Rosenquist in Welcome to the water planet (Documentary film)
(New York: Seven Hills Production, 1989).
7 James Rosenquist (Documentary film) 1989.
8 James Rosenquist (Documentary film) 1989.
9James Rosenquist quoted in Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A retrospective, New York: Guggenheim, c 2003, pp 126–27.
10 James Rosenquist (Documentary film) 1989.