In 1965, James Rosenquist told an interviewer: “While I was working in Times Square and painting signboards, the workmen joked around and said the super-center of the atomic target was around Canal Street and Broadway. That’s where the rockets were aimed from Russia.” The young painter—having just made headlines with F-111, a 10-by-86-foot painting that filled all four walls of Leo Castelli’s Upper East Side gallery—had war on his mind. In his recent autobiography, Rosenquist (born in 1933) wrote about envisioning the Air Force’s newest fighter-bomber, the F-111, “flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”
MOMA’s new installation of the painting, presented in a room built to mimic the original dimensions of Castelli’s space, reveals that Rosenquist was an early adopter of the visual overload we now take for granted. Trained as a sign painter, he employed keen formal chops to distill beauty from the image torrent delivered by the billboards, newspapers, and magazines of his day. Unlike his contemporary Andy Warhol, who transmuted everything from Elvis to electric chairs into gritty graphics, Rosenquist honed his illusionistic shading and modeling skills by “painting billboards over every candy store in Brooklyn,” noting, “My chromatic alphabet came from Franco-American spaghetti and Kentucky bourbon.”
That spaghetti takes a star turn in F-111, where it appears as a mass of writhing Day-Glo cables pierced by the jet’s nose cone. These elements fade into a silvery limbo of blank aluminum panels at each end of the mural, separated, as in the original installation, by a narrow doorway. Rosenquist contorts the notion of Matisse’s similarly enveloping water-lily panorama by replacing the impressionist’s languorous contemplation of nature with the claustrophobic crush of modern culture. Yet as in olden days when a television signal would resolve from snowy static to clear picture, F-111 gains clarity the longer you wander amid its ocular hurly-burly. Aqualung bubbles segue into a mushroom cloud, which shifts into a pilot’s helmet reflected in the bullet-shaped hair dryer above a cherubic little girl, whose toothy smile is mirrored by the tread of a Firestone tire looming over an angel food cake. Cold War angst meets postwar buoyancy in tiny flowers—deftly applied with a wallpaper roller—that bloom along the plane’s fuselage. Small preparatory collages highlight both Rosenquist’s careful planning and the conceptual serendipity of his source materials: Under a photo of spaghetti sprayed with bright-orange pigment, the artist scrawled, “radio active Spag.”
Half a century ago, Rosenquist collaged advertising come-ons into lushly interwoven murals. The multivalent beauty of Terry Winters’s recent abstract canvases arises in part from jpegs and GIFs he downloads from the brave (though not so new anymore) world of Google image searches. Winters combs through the miasma of pixels engulfing the globe and edits them into notebook pages that mash up science, nature, physics, and the odd paint chart.
In Notebook 1 (all of these letter-size pages are dated 2003 to 2011), a graphic of arrows swirling around a blank sphere has been printed on clear acetate and stapled over a photo of an atomic fireball. Are these the force lines of some esoteric wind-tunnel experiment? And what is the origin of the mummy in Notebook 182, which is overlaid with vaguely organic, symmetrical forms captioned, “Known examples of constant mean curvature surfaces”? Swatches of Winsor & Newton oil paints collide with a bulbous mesh in Notebook 113, perhaps a metaphor for every painter’s dilemma of condensing the three-dimensional world into patches of color on a flat surface.
Like radioactivity, the strange amalgam of information in Winters’s notebooks lurks beyond perception even as it permeates the elusive space and chromatic frontiers of his expansive abstractions.