Until the advent of television commercials, the most garish, godawful form of advertising was the roadside billboard. Hated, despised, loathed, abominated, and abhorred by nearly everyone as a blight upon God's green earth; and even today, regulated by local, state, and federal governments nearly to extinction, they are still often considered the lowest form of advertising. Even though today, most billboards are informational, telling us from far back off the freeway where we might eat, sleep, or refill our tanks at the next exit, we still only barely tolerate them. In many cases, others are public informational, urging us to buckle up, or slow down, or stop smoking, or help cure cancer with a generous donation. These we don't tolerate so much as ignore. And while they still continue to dot the landscape in their more abhorrent forms (especially around election time), it's in the big cities where they most prominently reside, often forming their OWN landscapes, even coming to symbolize big cities themselves.
In 1955, a young artist from Grand Forks, North Dakota moved to New York to study art. He'd already learned to paint in Minneapolis, but in New York, he could hit it big by studying at a more prestigious venue--the Art Students League. To earn a living, he painted billboards high above the heart of New York in Times Square--the Mount Olympus of billboardism. This of course, was back in the days when billboards were still painted by hand, rather than lithographed onto sheets of plastic and glued on as they are now. It was in the days before television had soaked up a lot of the advertising money that then went into billboards. And it was back in the days when billboard advertising was, itself, something of an artform, albeit at a rather lowbrow level. He didn't sign his billboards, but if he had, they would have read, "James Rosenquist."
He and his friends at the Art Students League were a motley crew--Robert Indiana, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Claus Oldenburg--struggling to be new and different in a New York art world still enamored with Abstract Expressionism. Like Rosenquist, several of them had experience working in commercial art. Along with Lichtenstein and Warhol, they didn't know it yet, but they were on the verge of becoming what we might call the fathers of Pop...or maybe Pop's pops. No two of them approached Pop in the same way. Lichtenstein took a comic approach. Johns used pop icons. Warhol did too, but chose quantity over quality. Rauschenberg mixed media, often with disturbing consequences. Oldenburg went soft...and 3-D.
Rosenquist went large...billboard large...one painting, "F-111" (1965) was 26 meters wide. His colors were flat, bright, even garish, sometimes shockingly so. Like Warhol and some of the others, he borrowed commercial images, words, compositions, and effects from the consumer product and advertising worlds, but in using them, Rosenquist sliced and diced them into such complex and often confusing compositions, we're tempted to call him a Pop Expressionist. Unlike his Abstract Expressionist forebears, there were familiar images in his gigantic paintings all viewers could grasp and hold onto as they visually probed his work for whatever deeper meanings it might conceal. But in doing so, one was never sure if there really WAS something intellectually profound to be found, or if the various, often discordant, images were merely slapped together in much the same way Pollock splattered or Kandinsky slathered.
Pop passed in the late 1960s. As it did, Pop artists, either became Pop icons themselves (as did Warhol and Lichtenstein) or passed with it. But Rosenquist did neither. Even though his work was, and is, undeniably Pop, Rosenquist has continued to merely USE Pop, rather than to wallow in its nostalgia or clothe himself in it. In a sense, he has melded Pop and what came before it into Pop and what came AFTER it. In doing so, his recent work takes on elements of Surrealism and Dada, sometimes even Color Field and Minimalism. And in reflecting current art trends, in the glamorous Pop iconography he helped invent, his work today seems much fresher, crisper, cleaner, and sharper than that of any of his fellow fathers of Pop.