Big Art

Not surprisingly, James Rosenquist started out as a billboard painter.

Rosenquist is much more effective when he forces us to tease out our own meaning from a painting, as in The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light (1999), in which a fragmented American flag and gleaming strips of Mylar form a kaleidoscopic cascade. Or, as in my favorite piece from the show, an electrifying work called Voodoo Wedding(2002), inspired by a trip the artist made to Haiti. Mertes says it "playfully refers to our inability to truly see and know everything we are getting into."

Maybe. But the near-abstract image, with its dancing interplay of fiery lines and shapes, haunted me until I dug up the cover of the second Santana record, 1970's Abraxas. There, in the delirious collage of overripe, Rosenquist-inflected imagery, I found the trio of elaborately costumed tribal women singing or chanting, whose expressive upturned faces somehow signaled to me from Voodoo Wedding. I have no idea whether Rosenquist was influenced, consciously or not, by this snippet of American pop culture, but I take it as an example of his ability to tap into a wellspring of images that resonate far beyond the canvas.

The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light challenges you to tease out your own meaning.
The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light challenges you to tease out your own meaning.

When I told a friend I was planning to visit the Rosenquist exhibition, he sighed dismissively and said he had wearied of the artist because he has continued to create essentially the same kind of art for nearly half a century. I countered that this indicates not a limited vision but rather a faithfulness to a vision in its infinite manifestations. Now, having seen the MAM show, I'm convinced that Rosenquist is as essential as ever.

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