Dakota Datebook

James Rosenquist

Friday, December 12, 2003

Today is the 70th birthday of one of the world’s most famous pop artists, James Rosenquist.

Last month, the New York Times published a review of Rosenquist’s current art exhibit – a retrospective of his life’s work, which is on display at the Guggenheim in New York; it is, in fact, the museum’s first show in their newly remodeled exhibition space.

The reviewer, Michael Kimmelman, wrote, “…when he is most effective, Mr. Rosenquist brings together bits and pieces that don’t necessarily mean anything on their own but evoke a world where a hair dryer can resemble an ICBM, and a hospital can become a Chinese restaurant.”

The Chinese restaurant he refers to is none other than the Grand Forks hospital where Rosenquist was born in 1933 – the same hospital that later became a Chinese restaurant. When, several years ago, Rosequist was introduced at a UND lecture as ”the most famous artist ever born at the Happy Dragon Chinese Restaurant,” Rosenquist laughed and said that he thought it was really ”the Happy Hour Restaurant, but it’s the Happy Dragon.”

When he was only 15, Rosenquist received a scholarship to attend classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. Four years later, he entered the University of Minnesota to further study painting. But to pay the bills, Rosenquist worked for a local contractor painting billboards and large advertising images on grain silos. In 1955, he moved to New York to study at the Art Students’ League, but a year later he left school to again take up life as a commercial artist, this time painting giant billboards in Times Square and across the city.

After several years he rented a small studio space in Manhattan and became friends with some of the most important artists to emerge from that generation, including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschneberg, and Jasper Johns.

Using images from popular media in his paintings, Rosenquist was soon identified with an emerging new art style. Borrowing from his earlier experience as a billboard painter, he created enormous pieces with jarring images from advertisements, personal themes and politics. A painting he did in 1965, called F-111, had 51 separate panels and wrapped an entire room. His 1992 piece, Time Dust, is thought to be the largest print in the world, measuring 7 by 35 feet.

Rosenquist said, “I’m amazed and excited and fascinated about the way things are thrust at us…we are attacked by radio and television and visual communications…at such a speed and with such a force that painting now seem(s) very old fashioned…why shouldn’t it be done with that power and gusto, with that impact?”

Rosenquist was soon included in a number of groundbreaking group exhibitions that established this experimental style was labeled Pop Art, a term Rosenquist hates. On the flip side, there were a large number of art lovers who hated Pop Art for its own sake, calling Rosenquist a Kitschnik and a New Vulgarian. However, the movement went on to have a truly significant and far-reaching effect on the art world.

The NY Times review ended by saying, “A sly storyteller, a charmer and old-style rabble-rouser, he still has a restless imagination, huge energy, and an uncanny knack for spotting how two unlikely things go together… Pure poetry.”

Here’s to James Rosenquist, the best artist ever born in a hospital turned Chinese restaurant.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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