James Rosenquist, who elevated the Tampa Bay art world, dead at 83

Published April 2 2017
Updated April 2 2017

James Rosenquist, a world-renowned pioneer of the pop art genre whose surrealist, graphic paintings reverberated from the Tampa art scene to international galleries, died on Friday. He was 83.

His wife, Mimi Thompson, said Mr. Rosenquist died at his home in New York City after a long illness.

Mr. Rosenquist had already made a name for himself working in New York City alongside the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein when Don Saff, founder of University of South Florida's Graphicstudio, invited him to the collaborative workspace as a resident in 1971.

Over the decades, living part time in Pasco County's Aripeka, where he kept a studio, Mr. Rosenquist would return dozens of times to work in the Graphicstudio and create his signature, vivid montages blending pop culture, advertising and surrealism that were exhibited around the world.

READ MORE: Excerpts from an interview with artist Rosenquist.

Mr. Rosenquist became a fixture in the Ybor City art scene and its nightclubs and supported USF students with mentoring and scholarships, Saff said. In St. Petersburg, his 27-foot aluminum sculpture of a Band-Aid was installed in 2002 on the USF/All Children's Pediatric Research Institute at 601 Fourth St. S.

"When they do a book on 21st century art, they'll have to give Rosenquist a chapter," Saff said. "Basically, he raised the entire genre of art for the Tampa Bay area. He was a very big name, but he was very disarming. He would go places, to Paris, and they'd ask him to talk about Graphicstudio."

Mr. Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1933 and began painting billboard advertisements after art school at the University of Minnesota. He went to New York on an art scholarship in 1955, which introduced him to the supernova circle of painters and poets in Greenwich Village and other art cliques.

He made a living in commercial art with sign painting and billboard ads and later set up a studio in Lower Manhattan. One of his most famous paintings, F-111, debuted in 1965. It blends a Vietnam War-era fighter-bomber over conflicting images including a smiling girl, a hair dryer and spaghetti, helping to define the genre's blend of social commentary and consumerism, the ordinary and the unusual.

His success, with works collected by international museums and clientele who paid seven figures for his work, was also splintered by tragedy in his adopted home of Tampa Bay.

While leaving the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa in 1971, during his first trip to collaborate at Graphicstudio, a car crash left his first wife in a coma for four months and his young son with serious injuries. The couple later divorced, but the recovery period helped attach him to the area.

He built a stilt house and workspace on 28 acres in Aripeka in 1976. On April 25, 2009, his home, two studios and decades of artwork were destroyed in an 80-acre brush fire that ripped through the area.

Margaret Miller, director of USF's Institute for Research in Art, said Mr. Rosenquist's unending loyalty to family and friends and students helped him refocus on his work after tragedy.

He was known as a voracious storyteller, Miller said, interested in embracing other artists and exchanging ideas and making the art world an inclusive place.

"He was so loyal to the artists he cared about," Miller said. "Whenever one of my staff would retire, who would show up to the party but James Rosenquist."

Gail Levine and her husband, Arnold, collected Mr. Rosenquist's work since he first arrived at Graphicstudio in 1971. They became fast friends and have accumulated more than 20 of his prints in their home in South Tampa.

While visiting him at his home in Bedford, N.Y., around 2008, Mr. Rosenquist took Gail Levine to his studio in a barn beside the house and allowed her to be the first to see his painting of a surrealist universe that would later hang in a gallery in the Upper East Side.

"You know, Jim's mother was a pilot, and I always felt he had this connection to the universe," Gail Levine said. "Now he will be one of the stars."

Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.