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For James Rosenquist, it's the art of the big idea


‘‘You wanna know about art?" James Rosenquist, one of the world's greatest living artists, says in a tone somewhere between mellow and bellow.

Then he chuckles. And relates a very funny story about a major world power reneging on a commission, refusing the bill and the painting after its leader dies.

"That's art," he says.

There is no bitterness in his recounting of the incident, only the deep irony of someone who has triumphed in the art world while coming to terms with the mercurial realities of collectors, critics and public opinion.

He has experienced great lows and highs in the decades since his first one-man show at a New York gallery in 1962. Much is made of his work as a billboard painter before he began making money as a fine artist, a shorthand way to explain his appropriation of familiar images, the large scale of his work and the seeming preoccupation with spatial surface rather than depth. His monumental F-11 was unveiled in 1965, an 86-foot painting that was a rich metaphor for how we receive and perceive popular culture. He became famous and somewhat controversial as an interpreter of the pop art movement, a label he has never liked. He bears that mantle with resignation, destined to be grouped with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg in public consciousness and scholarly tomes. If labels must be applied, surrealist seems more apt.

Pop or not, Rosenquist, 74, a Midwesterner from a humble background, is today a revered and wealthy man. His place in art history was cemented long before a rapturously received retrospective in 2003, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He has lived long enough and been successful enough to become a reference point for new appropriation artists and movements such as neo-pop.

Moving between two worlds

Rosenquist can afford those great luxuries, privacy and independence, which he finds in Aripeka, a gulffront community straddling the Hernando-Pasco county line, where he lives most of the year. There he is just "Jim" to the locals, and he paints without the noise and distractions of The Moment.

When he chooses. Because in his mailbox, on his telephone and through his fax machine, The Moment constantly clamors for attention from one or another big city. In Aripeka, Rosenquist, aided by several assistants, can decide to ignore it.

He is not a hermit. Friends come often, even the VIPs who are accustomed to urban luxury. He attends openings around the world for his own shows and those of fellow artists. He gives generously to many charities. (It Heals Up — popularly known as the giant Band-Aid — is a large public art installation in St. Petersburg that he donated to All Children's Hospital.) He regularly shuttles back and forth to Manhattan, where his second wife, writer Mimi Thompson, and their daughter, Lily, live. (She's a high school senior who plans to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in the fall.) Now that high temperatures are descending over Florida, he soon will move north for a few months. Still, Aripeka remains home, as it has been for almost 30 years. "It's where I'm registered to vote," he says.

Even in battered jeans and paint-spattered

T-shirt, Rosenquist has a leonine presence. His utterances sound like pronouncements. He loves to share anecdotes about his life as an artist. He teases, even badgers, if he finds a question silly. But an essential kindness is clear beneath even the hectoring.

After pain, a new beginning

Rosenquist first saw the pristine coast about 20 miles north of New Port Richey back in the early 1970s.

His first wife and their young son were seriously injured in a car accident in Tampa in 1971, and were recuperating at a local hospital. He had originally come to collaborate on limited-edition prints at Graphicstudio, the prestigious atelier at the University of South Florida. While his family recovered, he rented studio space. He explored his surroundings.

"I had a lot of time to drive around," he says. "That's how I found this place."

The accident changed his life; his wife was in a coma for almost four months, and the family was saddled with large medical bills. She recovered, but the marriage failed and they divorced.

He struggled with depression and began to regroup, and bought 28 acres in Aripeka. With the help of friends, he built a stilt house and small studio in 1976.

He returned to top form, selling his work for ever higher prices. Over the years, he amassed more land and now owns 100 acres. In the 1980s he added two connecting studios the size of large airplane hangars that give him a place to paint and to store his work. They're not air-conditioned except for a small area separated by wood framing and clear plastic sheeting, cooled by a small wall unit, where he paints in inclement weather.

A large group of paintings from the 1950s are stacked in a corner, murky forays into abstract expressionism before he found his own visual voice. The space also is a laboratory for ideas, as in the fantastical three-dimensional constructions he builds and then uses as inspiration for his paintings.

One part of the studio looks like an indoor used car lot.

"A guy couldn't pay for paintings with money, so he offered me these cars," Rosenquist says. "Some of them are vintage."

There are about a dozen cranky relics, some disemboweled of their parts. Not one is in working order.

So little time, so much to learn

Fourteen new canvases are lined along the walls of his vast studio. They have the great technique, lush colors and sense of movement that are his signatures. In these works, the movement is not just through space but through time, which is much on his mind.

"As a person gets older," he says, "time gets more interesting. As a kid you waste so much of it."

They are not intimations of mortality. The canvases are filled with clock faces that float, bend and melt into light bursts and confettis of swirling color.

Even without a narrative they would be beautiful. Rosenquist has been studying scientific theory, much as Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali did, in service to his art, "black holes, the relationships between distance and time." And time as a dictatorial presence in modern life. They are light years away from his early, more literal paintings but their themes share the same curiosity he has always had about the way we fold and process fleeting impressions into our brains, incorporating them somehow as experience. He's done with the panoramic catalogs; these bear witness to a deeper experience born of the imagination.

He'll talk about the new work, and the here and now. Then he will turn to a night some 50 years ago when he was hitchhiking to Key West.

"It was getting dark, and I was sunburned to a crisp. A voice calls out, 'Hey, boy, you're gonna die. Come in and get a lemonade.' This man was living in an old house with his family by the side of the road. I had that drink and then I started walking again."

He's still that wanderer, on the prowl for something he does not yet know.

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

[email protected]

For James Rosenquist, it's the art of the big idea 06/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 1:19pm]
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