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Excerpts from an interview with artist James Rosenquist

Times art critic Lennie Bennett recently interviewed James Rosenquist, 75, in conjunction with the publication of his memoir Painting Below Zero. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

This not a tell-all book. No, I left the sex out.

I'm disappointed that you did, but . . . Well, I'll tell you why. Jackson Pollock's girlfriend, Ruthie Kligman, wrote a book (after he died in 1956) and it was slimy, too sexy, and it didn't even sell very well. I always liked Ruthie, but I think it was kind of dumb. People have relationships, love affairs and everything, and I don't know . . .

You explain the reasons for the title Painting Below Zero fairly early in the book and how everything came together for you in your mind with what you really wanted to do and how you wanted to do it. With non-objective painting and total abstraction that only referred to pure color and form and no images in it whatsoever, if you had an image in there, you had to throw it out. No images. And there were only a few great painters who knew about that. Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, for example.

In my commercial experience, I painted these big images of food, whiskey, cigarettes, movie stars, everything, and I was painting them right in front of my nose. So I really thought I was just painting in color and form, and to hell with the image. I just had to do a good job.

The complete image itself was never in front of you. Yeah, the image was really in the back of my head because it was so large; I was just in the middle of this big thing, painting a chocolate cake or something. But the image was really for people hundreds of yards away. So I thought, hey, I can do a new kind of painting, introducing imagery again, but it still will be nonobjective really. And so my plan was to do a painting where I would paint images much larger than life and the largest one would be the hardest to recognize even though it was painted accurately. Therefore, I could make a mysterious painting and a painting where the images were recognized at a rate of time, at a speed of time.

You didn't really care about trying to make something that was especially understandable. No, only recognizable.

You have never been comfortable being categorized as a pop artist. No, and I'll tell you why. The term pop art was maybe good for a minute, for a while, but what happens is that if luckily someone gets to grow older, they change and that doesn't apply anymore.

You seem to have made peace with being described as one. That's for easy identification.

But you differentiate yourself from other artists who are often grouped with you as pop artists, like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. We're all so different. If you take the previous generation with Jackson Pollock, Bill de Kooning and Mark Rothko, they were called abstract expressionists. They were so different.

Abstract expressionism includes so many artists, I've never been sure what that phrase exactly means. When I came to New York, and even before, teachers were always encouraging young students to splash paint on a canvas and then make an idea out of it, or try. But usually they didn't. It was just a lot of splashing going on, so that all of a sudden, it was a reaction against that image, that splashed splash. And what happened then? Allegedly, things called pop art started, also op art. People don't remember op art. There was a big op art show at the Museum of Modern Art, and there were no drips or splashes in that. That was all largely hard-edged painting. Roy Lichtenstein was a hard-edged painter. Andy Warhol did silk screens.

You write that "what united us was dread of drip and splash." Yep, yep, yep.

You imply that one thing of many that differentiated you from some of your peers is that your images are not used as visual puns or ironically, as they do. Andy used a lot of identifiable commercial imagery like Coca-Cola and Brillo pads and things like that. Roy Lichtenstein was a World War II veteran, so he was a different animal. He was a very good friend of mine. His imagery was sort of sardonic and sometimes caustic but then, at the same time, it looked simple and had humility. And so he's one of those special breed of World War II veterans, and I relate to them because my cousins and uncles were veterans, and they're a different kind of people. They're very no-nonsense people.

One of the lowest periods of your life was the 1970s when your first wife and son were injured in a terrible car accident. What happened was I certainly missed my middle-age crisis because I had this accident. Now I missed my old-age crisis 'cause I had this g-- d--- fire. (His home and studio in Aripeka were destroyed in a fire in April.) So (laughs), I mean, one looks back at one's life in retrospect, really, at many things that happened and you think they're terrible, they're bad, but there may be a good part of it.

What did you find good about some of those things? I think of the many times in my life that I should have been dead. For instance, I had an infection in my arm in 1948 that left me with a stiff wrist. I was 4-F at my army physical. So the dopey thing in my left wrist stopped me from getting killed in Korea because I was headed there during the draft. And then, time and time again, living and working in Times Square, I almost got killed sign painting. I almost fell off 12 stories in Brooklyn. But I didn't (laughs). So time and again, I see where my career could have been ended and, lo and behold, here I am. This fire that happened, I was away for the whole day. I came home. Everything was burned to gray dust. If I'd come earlier, I probably would have gotten hurt, burned, trying to save stuff. But I couldn't do it, I didn't do it, I didn't have the chance. It was fate. So in retrospect, I think of one's life and see what narrow misses one has had, and I've had a number of 'em.

Speaking of the fire, what's happening in Aripeka? My Aripeka property where my house and studio and office building were is now dirt. Everything is really gone. I moved my office staff to a nearby guesthouse built up in the air and enclosed the bottom for a studio because I was right in the middle of preparing a show for my gallery in New York, for November, and we realized we couldn't do it then because at least 10 pieces burned up that were going to be in the show. So we changed it to February and that's still a rush.

And then I got a call from the Metropolitan Opera — "James, would you make a painting for the opera Tosca because we'd like to have a show of artists' works at the entrance."

So I did this 6- by 6-foot painting and they made a 36-foot-square banner and hung it on the front of the Met. I did it in the trenches in Aripeka and they went crazy over it.

Then a mural commissioned for North Dakota got burned up. And just before it burned up, they'd been talking to me every year for six years about wanting to get it done and they came to see it and they said, "Oh, fantastic, it's marvelous, it's lovely, but we don't have the money yet. We're raising the money." And I got mad. I said, "What the hell. Do you think I'm a bank?" Okay, now the damn thing burned up and they called me and said, "James, we've got an anonymous donor now who's got the cash right here." Really? (laughs) So what do I do? I start painting the damn thing over again.

Did you finish it? No, it's about halfway done.

Then what are your plans? I have a general idea for another large painting. But then I don't know what I'm going to do. You know, I've been coming to Florida since 1953. I first hitchhiked to Miami years ago. I always liked Florida. And then most of my acquaintances died in Florida, at least six or seven. Then my house got burned to the ground, and then I had a couple of robberies.

You had robberies after the fire? Yeah. Some people broke in and took crowbars and broke open the safe and smashed everything afterward. I think they got probably about $800 in petty cash out of the safe. That doesn't bother me so much. It's just that the whole environment that I had is just gone. You can rebuild a building but you can't rebuild a tree. I don't plan to rebuild there.

On that piece of property or in Aripeka period? It's like something telling me, you better do something else. You got to move.

Move physically. Move everything — physically. Maybe Italy. My friend's mother-in-law is this little Italian lady who's 82 years old and built subway systems in Singapore and skyscrapers. She's unbelievable. So she said, "You know, Jim? Italy, it's very nice, it's like Aripeka, Florida. And, you know, perhaps we could build you a building down there." (laughs) And Italy is interesting, but maybe it's just too far away from New York. I never moved to California because it was nine hours difference calling Europe and three hours calling New York. Too hard to communicate, seriously. I don't know.

You say near the end of the book, "I've never considered retiring."

I'm gonna get retreaded instead of retired (laughs). A stockbroker who's crunching numbers all his life probably gets sick of it, but I don't get sick of what I do.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.

Excerpts from an interview with artist James Rosenquist 11/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 12:52pm]
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