James Rosenquist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum probably couldn’t look any better than it does. Many of the artist’s touchstone pictures are on exhibit and have ample room to make their cases. There are a handful of his handsome collages, several sculptures, and a sprinkling of his numberless prints. In addition to a few of his recent lobby-scaled paintings of, well, essentially nothing, there’s the 60-panel, wraparound wow! that is F-111 (1964-65), a multicolored radioactive rebus of mushroom clouds, war machines, spaghetti, and a hair dryer that sums up what 1965 looked and felt like, the same way Pollock’s One: Number 31 captures 1950.
Still, while Rosenquist could not be better served by the museum or his capable curators Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, this exhibition suggests that this original pop god had no more than 10 good years before he started turning out flashy formulaic sequels of his early hits. Many of these original hits still sizzle, especially those painted in his true heyday, between 1960 and 1965. After that, there’s a sudden falling off. Then, except for a brief flirtation with abstraction in the early ’70s, repetition sets in. By the exhibition’s fourth ramp, all that remains is an afterglow. If that glow can sustain you through the rings of roteness that follow (and his snazzy color is almost enough to do that), or if you’re one of those devotees who revere Rosenquist all the way through, you’ll love this exhibition. But I suspect even hardcore fans will be tested by the gaudy paintings of dolls, guns, flowers, cut-up photo strips, and space-age stuff on the upper ramps. If his 30-year tailspin into visual insipidness alarms you, you may find yourself wishing that this retrospective had been an in-depth survey of Rosenquist’s early work instead.
Let’s pretend it is. Imagine that the first three ramps are all there is at the Guggenheim. The paintings down here are sensational and sensationally original. Appropriately, our mini-show begins with a double bang: President Elect (begun in 1960 and finished in 1964), a colorful canvas that features images of a youthful JFK, a woman’s hand proffering a piece of cake, and the broadside of an old Chevrolet, and Zone (1960-61), a zigzaggy grisaille composition of a woman’s face and droplets. Immediately you grasp why there’s no need for galleries of fumbling early work: Rosenquist’s genius emerged fully formed, much of it from his day job as a billboard painter. “I thought if I could do that,” he said (meaning make art the way sign painters paint signs), “whatever I did, my art wasn’t going to look like everyone else’s.” Like Warhol, once a commercial artist, and Richter, a backdrop painter, Rosenquist took his commercial skills into the stratosphere.
Rosenquist’s breakthrough, which smolders still, was fourfold. First, there was what he depicted, which were images culled from glossy weeklies—combs, cars, gloves, and faces. Rosenquist didn’t paint from life—he painted from Life magazine. Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Richard Hamilton, and sundry Nouveaux Realistes had used similar images; de Kooning taped a Camel cigarette ad to a painting in 1949. Rosenquist, however, didn’t just cut these pictures out and paste or transfer them to surfaces. He actually painted them. Which brings us to his second, and to my mind much more shocking, breakthrough.
At a time when artists were looking for a way around the painterly style of the abstract expressionists, Rosenquist hit on this amazingly deadpan, seemingly smart-aleck, yet paradoxically super-skilled method that critiqued painting and extended its tradition simultaneously. It was as if the way he used his brush didn’t matter, which made it matter all the more—in the much the same way the abstract expressionists or the post-impressionists had made it matter. In one fell swoop, Rosenquist raised and lowered the bar. Not only do his flat-footed surfaces buzz with edgy inexpressiveness and painterly nerve, they are to painting what Andre’s metal plates and Flavin’s fluorescent tubes were to sculpture: a holy shit! start-over moment.
This seismic shift extends into painterly hyperspace via Rosenquist’s most original innovation: the jarring but joyful, one-image-next-to-another jump-cut composition he invented. Filmmakers did this in light. Rosenquist physicalized the process, and short-circuited synapses the way Rauschenberg did. Only he did it with more explicitness and clarity. Rosenquist made the non sequiturs of everyday life make sense. All this is major—and we haven’t even touched on his color, which comes from the culture but wasn’t really in art before he put it there. Now it’s hard to imagine painting without it.
So what, then, to make of Rosenquist’s strong start and faltering finish? Let’s heed an old New Yorker cartoon in which two caveman grouse about a third: “Oh sure he invented fire, but what’s he done lately?” Complaining about the last 30 years of Rosenquist’s work, when what he invented changed the way the world looks and the way we look at the world, is shortsighted and probably petty. Instead, relish the Guggenheim’s first few rings and forget the rest.