James Rosenquist, artist and Aripeka resident, shares life experiences

Fire destroyed the Aripeka home and studios of internationally known artist James Rosenquist in April. Among the losses were 15 new canvases. Rosenquist, 75, is still struggling with the losses but remains vital in his discussions about art and his future. Here are some of his thoughts about his work and outlook.

I'm not a commercial artist. Commercial art, you do something for somebody for money. Painting, you do for yourself.

The light in Florida is so beautiful for an artist that when you cry down here, your tears either turn to broken glass or diamonds.

Sometimes, an image in my mind occurs and then, after a long time, titles, many titles, come about. Or a title appears and no images and I go, "What the hell am I going to do about that?"

I make dozens and dozens of sketches. I'll change sketches, change them and change them and change them, throughout maybe a year. Pin them on the wall. Keep looking at them. If they start to look pretty, maybe I'll start to paint them. It's a progression of working on sketches for a long, long time. If they look good this big, they might really look good 25 feet long. That's my method.

The hard question is ideas. I never paint anything unless I have an idea. Painting, I can do. Ideas are difficult.

My mother would say, "Well, you're always drawing. Maybe you could make some money at it." So I answered an ad in the paper from a sign painting company. I made $1.50 an hour painting Phillips 66 emblems on gas tanks and stuff around North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In New York, my first job was painting Hebrew National salami signs on the Flatbush Extension in Brooklyn.

I painted signs on Times Square. I had to paint good enough to sell. That was the first criteria. Never mind the art part. My audition was an 8-foot-tall painting of Kirk Douglas' head for the movie The Vikings. I gave him beautiful blond hair, saliva on his lips, tears in his eyes. I got the job.

I started clipping images out of magazines that I thought were really peculiar, ridiculous, contradictory and so forth, and I started making what's called pop art. One was the front of a Ford and two people whispering to each other in a field of Franco-American spaghetti.

I had my first show in February 1962 and sold out. In 1963, all the work I did went to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1964, I had another show — sold out. Painting prices were 350 to 1,100 bucks. You weren't getting rich, but I felt very lucky to paint any damn thing I felt like.

My only mistake, if there has been a mistake, is not judging professional people correctly. You think they're good, and they're terrible. That's a mistake.

The '60s, the creativity part was try everything and anything, whatever came into one's mind. That's the feeling I had. I had nothing to lose and didn't know if I had anything to gain.

Andy Warhol, he had this thing called the Factory, which was a place covered in aluminum foil. He would attract the runaway people as they came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, crazies, real crazies. He used to tease people a lot. He'd make people angry. People would try to hurt him. I traveled around with him when we were both in the same gallery, the Stone Gallery in New York, and a couple of times people tried to push him into traffic. Someone tried to push him over a balcony one time. He made enemies. He put people on. But, otherwise, he was a nice, likable guy.

What you do is at night, you go out drinking at bars with Bob Rauschenberg until late, wake up with a hangover, start working at about 11 o'clock, work until 7 or 8 o'clock at night, rent a tuxedo, go to an art opening at a museum, drink again, wake up with another hangover and keep doing that. I did that one time seven days a week for seven months in a row. (Painter Rauschenberg died in May 2008 at his home on Captiva Island.)

I went away for the day and came home in the afternoon and the place was gone, the studio, the house, everything completely burned to dust. Machinery. Cars. Things are unrecognizable. It's melted and gray. There's no color. The trees are dead. There were only a few things that really hurt, the print archives and the 133-foot mural. That was rough, and I lost my mother's scrapbooks.

Emotionally, it's vacancy. Big vacancy.

Now, I can see why some fellow artists aren't more well known or not known at all. Seems to me they're not outgoing enough. I don't know how to put it. They're like turtles that stay in their shell and think that something is going to knock on their shell and take them out of there. That doesn't happen.

If a person can see an advantage, do it. Recognizing opportunity, that's what you have to do. There are opportunities galore, but, whoosh, they'll just go right by.

I've been living and working in Aripeka (in Pasco County) for 32 years. I like it here because there are no interruptions. In New York, there's nothing but interruptions.

I'd like all of my paintings back, so I can apply for a grant from the Ford Foundation to study my own life.

The article was reprinted from the August Florida Trend magazine. Florida Trend is owned by the Times Publishing Co.

James Rosenquist, artist and Aripeka resident, shares life experiences 08/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 2:47pm]

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