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James Rosenquist composes memoir around his vibrant painting career

You have probably never met the artist James Rosenquist, but after reading his new memoir, Painting Below Zero, you'll feel as if you have. And you'll wish you did.

Rosenquist's star rose in the early 1960s and he's now a supernova, collected by museums and an international clientele who sometimes pay in the seven figures for new work. Secondary sales go much higher. Locally, his oversize aluminum bandage hangs on the exterior of a University of South Florida medical building in St. Petersburg. For years, he has lived and worked for much of the year in Aripeka, a small hamlet in Pasco County.

And Rosenquist has known everyone worth knowing in the art world as well as many of the rich and famous beyond it.

So Rosenquist, 75, drops a lot of names in the book without being a name-dropper. We get the sense that he could have dished big-time about his milieu through the years but he's generous almost to the point of circumspection. Maybe it's Midwestern reserve.

He was born on Nov. 29, 1933, in the Deaconess Hospital in Grand Forks, N.D. That it later became the Happy Dragon Chinese Restaurant was to him a sign of good luck. It has also been an opportunity for a good anecdote, and the artist collects them, filling the book with story after story.

An only child, he moved with his parents around North Dakota, Minnesota and Ohio. All his relatives — aunts, uncles, grandparents — seem to have been solid and loving, farmers and blue collars who worked hard to stay above the poverty line and expected the same discipline from the youngest Rosenquist.

He learned early to be resourceful in earning money, with his eye always on advancement. But the seeds of his revolt against a conventional life were also apparent. Both parents learned to fly while they lived in North Dakota, and his mother was a nascent artist. Decades later when James was supporting her, he suggested she pursue some of the interests she could never indulge. She turned him down; her time for adventure had passed.

He studied art formally at the University of Minnesota though his exposure to it institutionally — in museums, for example — was limited. His greatest education came from jobs as a sign painter. He was good at it, making a living in New York painting huge billboards in the 1950s, as well as designing department store window displays as were his peers Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Like them, he rented a cheap studio and hung out at artists' haunts frequented by older artists like Rosenquist's idol, Willem de Kooning.

He writes that "when I got my first loft, I still didn't know what I was going to paint. . . . There were long stretches when I just sat there and thought without interruption."

Also during that time, 1960, he married his first wife, Mary Lou. Their son, John, was born in 1964. That's about all we know about the marriage. Most of the stories told during this time, when he was finding his artistic voice and recognition of it, concern people less close to him.

Which is still very interesting. He develops his dramatic method of painting appropriated popular images in seemingly disparate combinations. The monumental F-111 (1964-65) put him on the map. It stretches 86 feet and was first shown wrapped around the walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, with "larger-than-life images of angel food cake, tinned spaghetti, a Firestone tire, a beach umbrella, lightbulbs, a hair dryer and a radiant little girl — all overlaid with hallucinatory realism onto ominous images of an atomic mushroom cloud and a depth charge — luridly splashed along the side of a F-111 fighter plane with the words U.S. AIR FORCE printed on its fuselage."

He was dubbed a pop artist, like Warhol. Rosenquist makes clear that while he liked and respected Warhol, their artistic aims were very different. Warhol practiced a reductive art in which a popular commodity or image was an isolated, ironic symbol. Rosenquist created new contexts for his collage of images as social commentaries.

In 1971, Rosenquist, Mary Lou and John were visiting Tampa while he was working on a series of prints at the University of South Florida's acclaimed Graphicstudio. A hit-and-run driver crashed into their car, then they were hit by another car. Rosenquist had minor injuries; his wife was in a coma for a month, and his son, then 6, had multiple injuries. Rosenquist writes that he still has problems physically.

"The automobile crash was . . . devastating in ways that I still cannot really bear to think about. . . . It took me many years to recover. In some ways, I never have," he writes.

He threw himself into work, mostly because he had major medical bills to pay. He says the stress and guilt created a barrier between the couple and he began an affair with artist Susan Hall in 1973. He and his wife divorced and the relationship with Hall ended in 1978. He says he is still working on rebuilding his relationship with his son, now in his 40s.

He married his second wife, Mimi Thompson, in 1987 and they have a daughter, Lily, who was born in 1989 and attends the Rhode Island School of Design.

While these personal facts have no doubt had a profound impact on his life, he doesn't flesh them out in the book.

Instead, he takes us along on his upward professional trajectory. He did his share of carousing but never fell victim, as many artists have, to drugs and drink. He admits to once having a large stash of LSD that he fully intended to try, but he stored it in a box with paint supplies and it disintegrated. He's garrulous about the composition and meaning in his paintings. He alludes to his techniques, in which an overlay of images seems to reel with movement, but treats them as a chef would his secret recipes. The book has a lot of color plates that give you a sense of how his art has evolved over the years while remaining true to a fundamental aesthetic.

He has embraced fame and fortune more as a means than an end; they allow him to do what he wants, which is continue to paint. He's a generous philanthropist (the aluminum bandage titled It Heals Up, for example, was created by him only for the cost of materials). For more than 30 years, his main studio has been on wooded acreage in Aripeka on the Gulf of Mexico.

His well-tended equilibrium was shattered April 25 when a fire swept through his compound and destroyed everything, including much of his archives, all his personal possessions and many paintings. Rauschenberg, who lived on Captiva Island, and was one of his oldest friends, died in 2008. Those losses haven't slowed him down.

He once quoted an old Venetian proverb for a catalog essay — "The artist swims in the water, the critic stands ashore" — and asked of himself: "Am I in there? Or am I standing on the bank watching it?"

I think he's in there. To end his book, he writes, "I feel lucky that I've been able to make a living from painting any idea that comes into my head. When I make those paintings and put them out on that roadside stand, all I hope is that they'll surprise people enough to slow down, take a look and say, 'What in heck is that Rosenquist up to now!' "

Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art By James Rosenquist, Alfred A. Knopf, 370 pages, $50

James Rosenquist composes memoir around his vibrant painting career 11/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 2:34pm]
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