Big Art

Once every year or two, I stray outside my assigned territory and venture deep into the heart of Miami to write about an exhibition that promises to transcend its physical location. Last year, the Robert Rauschenberg show at the Miami Art Museum (MAM) fit the bill, but I dallied and missed the boat. This year, I'm making up for it with MAM's "James Rosenquist: Traveling at the Speed of Light."

Like Rauschenberg, Rosenquist is an almost universally acknowledged titan of contemporary art. Both artists have long made Florida their adopted home, and both have been inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame as a result. They also share an affinity for working on a large scale, and while Rosenquist has dabbled in mixed media, he has always been far more committed to oil painting.

"Traveling at the Speed of Light" is a smaller show than the Rauschenberg — just eight paintings, although they're mostly big paintings, with the smallest measuring roughly five feet by three and a half feet. And three pieces are nothing less than monumental, with heights up to 12 feet and widths up to 24 feet.

Such enormity of scale is nothing new for Rosenquist, whose best-known work probably remains F-111 (1964-65), a 15-panel painting ten feet high and 86 feet long. It was originally designed to cover all four walls of a space at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, and much of Rosenquist's output since has been influenced by it, in terms of both content and execution.

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1933 and attended the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the University of Minnesota. This academic background was supplemented with an extracurricular activity that would prove as important to his development as an artist: painting billboards. In 1955, he moved to New York, intending to study at the Art Students League, where he lasted a year before returning to billboard painting.

By the time the 1960s were under way, Rosenquist had set himself up in a small Manhattan studio he shared with fellow artists Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana. He had left billboards behind, or so he thought. His signature style, as it turned out, would forever be marked by the size, style, and subject matter of those billboards.

F-111, for example, is a sort of dramatically extended billboard in which the larger-than-life fighter jet of the title is overlaid with (and sometimes interrupted by) images of American consumerism such as a mass of spaghetti, a perky little girl sitting under a hair dryer, a light bulb, and angel food cake. The airplane snakes its way through these items but also through ominous suggestions of missiles and nuclear explosions, creating an anti-Vietnam War statement that prompted comparisons to Picasso's Guernica.

The MAM show's centerpiece is a more modest but no-less-typical Rosenquist dazzler called Brazil (2004), which measures about 8-by-24 feet, making it the largest work in the exhibition. (This painting and another from 2004, The Xenophobic Movie Director or Our Foreign Policy, are here displayed for the first time in the United States.) Reading from the left, Brazil includes such diverse imagery as a trio of indigenous archers firing into a sky in which vanilla beans, gemstones, and an orange slice float; a trio of gigantic hands, joined at the index fingers by a representation of the Brazilian flag; a composite face combining a jaguar and a carnival dancer; a parrot whose plumage seems to have exploded into the painting; and a glimpse of the spire of architect Oscar Neimeyer's 1958 cathedral.

As is usually the case in Rosenquist's big iconic paintings, there is a fairly straightforward reading, but the artist's jumble of imagery also harbors mystery and enigma. To quote from critic Robert Hughes, himself referencing a book on Rosenquist by Judith Goldman: "[M]ost of his images are not just culled, collage-wise, from advertising; they are shards of personal experience, of memories scaled up and colloquially scrambled."

Hughes also notes that, unlike other pop artists with whom Rosenquist is often grouped, including Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, Rosenquist is more of an innocent than an ironist. This can be tricky for an artist so often concerned with social and political criticism. As Hughes points out, F-111 differs from most other political art of its time because "it looks unpolemical at first, and that is the source of its power."

Such artistic innocence backfires, however, with another large painting in the MAM exhibition, The Xenophobic Movie Director or Our Foreign Policy. It's a less cluttered composition, and so its heavy-handedness is all the more obvious. On the left, the skull of a longhorn steer rests atop a tree stump that's wrapped in the American flag. In the center, we see the white-trousered legs of a golfer in midswing, while floating to the right is a large light bulb with Arabic letters reading "Praise God Creator of Our Worlds." The bottom of the canvas is littered with large numbers.

In the exhibition brochure, MAM curator Lorie Mertes cites a February conversation she had with the artist. "For Rosenquist, this work refers to ignorance on the part of our leaders in regard to 'what goes on in the minds of terrorists like those who attacked the U.S. on 9/11.' The artist wonders, 'How can you direct a country if you are afraid of people or learning about things that are foreign?'" Admirable sentiments, perhaps, but the painting in which Rosenquist attempts to articulate them comes across as overwrought.

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.

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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Michael Mills