James Rosenquist: His Billboards Past
The late pop artist James Rosenquist (1933-2017) is the subject of Acquavella Galleries’ ‘His American Life‘ exhibition, through which I have learned of his past as one of America’s leading billboard artists. It was this instagram post from the gallery that first caught my eye.
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In this photo, James Rosenquist and his mother admire one of the billboards he painted in Minneapolis in 1954. – – Rosenquist began painting billboards in the summer of 1953, when he was only nineteen years old. Over the next several years, Rosenquist would paint billboards across the Midwest and New York City, achieving renown as a "billboard Michelangelo." When he left behind his commercial work and dedicated himself to painting full time in 1960, he decided to take the language of billboard painting—with its emphasis on scale and close-ups—to painting on canvas. He began creating large works with fragmented imagery taken from popular culture, and these paintings quickly secured his place in history as one of the pioneering figures of Pop art. – Our exhibition "James Rosenquist: His American Life" opens next week! The show will be on view from October 25th – December 7th.- – Image Courtesy the Estate of James Rosenquist – – #Rosenquist #JamesRosenquist #HisAmericanLife #AcquavellaGalleries
Rosenquist showed artistic promise as a boy, which was actively encouraged by his mother, an amateur painter herself. However, his early career was defined by seven years as a sign and billboard painter, which subsequently came to have a major influence on his ‘fine’ art. In this endeavour he was also pushed by his mother to apply for his first sign painting job in the summer of 1953. This took him across the American Midwest with his employer, the contractor W. G. Fischer, painting everything from gasoline tanks to grain elevators.
Rosenquist’s experience with W. G. Fischer allowed him to join General Outdoor Advertising following his studies at the art department of the University of Minnesota. This gave him a wealth of further experience painting billboards in Minneapolis and St Paul with jobs for big brands such as Coca-Cola and Northwest Airlines, and others such as producing promotional signs for the movie Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955).
After a move to New York to pursue a scholarship with the Art Students League, Rosenquist was soon back at work on billboards: his studies lasted a year, disrupted by illness, and his private art practice wasn’t enough to live on. He became a paid-up union man, joining the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades in 1957. He had brief stints with the A. H. Villepigue Company and General Outdoor Advertising before returning to Minneapolis to work in a freelance capacity, while retaining his artists’ studio in New York.
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"I painted the Astor-Victoria sign seven times, and it's 395 feet wide and 58 feet high. I dropped a gallon of purple paint on Seventh Avenue and 47th Street from 15 stories up and didn't kill anybody. I dropped a brush at Columbus Circle. It fell on a guy's camel-hair coat." – James Rosenquist – – In her essay for our upcoming exhibition "James Rosenquist: His American Life," curator Judith Goldman describes Rosenquist's work as a billboard painter across the Midwest and New York City in the mid to late 1950s. About this photo, she writes: "The blurry snapshot has been reproduced numerous times. It is often accompanied by a newspaper clipping that describes him as a 'union man,' a dues-paying member of Local 230, Broadway’s biggest artist. A billboard Michelangelo. He was proud of being a 'union man.' He had always worked. From the time he was a boy, he had done whatever he could to make money: picked apples, dug potatoes, driven a delivery truck. It was a lucky break that he got the job painting billboards. The ad in the Minneapolis paper said: 'Wanted Artist / Sign Painter,' and at his mother’s insistence he applied, was hired, and spent the summer of 1953 painting signs for Phillips 66 gasoline across Wisconsin and North Dakota. Two years later, he graduated from signs to billboards. It was a far more demanding job. Painting billboards required greater skill and accuracy, but it taught him about materials. He learned how to mix smooth paint and how to scale up an image. Later it would supply him with endless stories to tell about the strange sights he saw on Manhattan rooftops and what it was like to paint Davy Crockett’s fur hat, Schenley Whiskey bottles, and the lettering for Hebrew National salami. A chance summer job had changed his life and the kind of art he made." – Judith Goldman – – James Rosenquist in Times Square, New York, 1958 Image courtesy the Estate of James Rosenquist – – #JamesRosenquist #Rosenquist #HisAmericanLife #billboard #billboards #AcquavellaGalleries
Rosenquist’s subsequent return to New York later in 1957 resulted in him joining the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation where he would be employed for the rest of his billboard painting career. During this time he rose to the position of Head Painter and was responsible for some of the country’s most iconic billboard locations in New York’s Times Square. His large-scale work spanned advertisements for major Broadway theatres through to window displays for high-end retailers such as Tiffany & Co.
In 1960 Rosenquist finally quit his work as a commercial billboard painter following the tragic deaths of two colleagues who fell from a scaffold while painting. His decision to pursue his art full-time was rewarded with a sell-out first solo exhibition at the Green Gallery in 1961, critical aclaim, and a position within the group of leading American Pop Artists which also included Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
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In New York in the early 1960s, several artists began to draw from the visual language of the mass media and popular culture in making their paintings. Moving away from the lofty ideals of Abstract Expressionism and traditional "high art" themes, these artists embraced commercial images and commonplace objects in their art. – – These artists would come to be known as the pioneers of Pop art. In 1964, the photographer Fred W. McDarrah captured the movement's leading protagonists, who are featured from left to right: Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. Together they are gathered at Warhol's Factory on Forty-Seventh Street. – In three weeks, we are looking forward to opening our exhibition of work by James Rosenquist. – – "James Rosenquist: His American Life" Curated by Judith Goldman October 25 – December 7, 2018 Open Monday – Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm – – #pop #popart #rosenquist #jamesrosenquist #warhol #andywarhol #wesselmann #tomwesselmann #oldenburg #claesoldenburg #lichtenstein #roylichtenstein
It is at this point in the early 1960s that I’ll leave the account of Rosenquist’s life and work, given that the primary interest here are his years as a billboard painter, which had a great influence on his subsequent and illustrious artistic career. All of the above was primarily cribbed together from the excellent chronology page of his studio website where the story continues at length, including details of his later graphic and print work.
We can welcome James Rosenquist into the growing list of ‘celebrity’ signwriters and those in New York can visit the current exhibition at Acquavella Galleries until December 7th to see some of his works in person. More of his story, including the billboard years, is documented in the exhibition catalogue by Judith Goldman.