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James Rosenquist and his mother admire one of the billboards he painted in Minneapolis in 1954.

James Rosenquist and his mother admire one of the billboards he painted in Minneapolis in 1954.

Image courtesy the Estate of James Rosenquist.

As a middle class kid growing up in Minneapolis, Pop art pioneer James Rosenquist worked odd jobs to make extra money; he picked apples and dug potatoes, and even drove a delivery truck. When he was nearing 20, Rosenquist responded, at his mother’s urging, to an ad in the local newspaper: “Wanted Artist/Sign Painter.” 

He got the job, and spent the summer of 1953 painting signs for Phillips 66 gasoline on the sides of barns that dotted highways stretching from Wisconsin to North Dakota. Writer and curator Judith Goldman, who organized the current exhibition “James Rosenquist: His American Life” at Acquavella Galleries in Manhattan, considers this minimum-wage opportunity a “lucky break” for the artist. By 1955, Rosenquist “graduated from signs to billboards,” Goldman writes in the exhibition catalogue. The serendipitous summer job would change the course of his life.

Rosenquist would go on to become a leading figure of the New York School of painters in the early 1960s, renowned for his collagistic paintings of the American vernacular. But Goldman wants to tell a new story about his early commercial painting gigs. “Because he once worked as a billboard painter,” she told Artsy, “the public may not realize how sophisticated he was.” That incomplete image of the artist might stem from a much-reproduced 1958 snapshot of Rosenquist standing on the scaffolding next to a billboard in New York’s Times Square, the old Hotel Astor visible across the street behind him. Rosenquist had recently moved to the city to pursue his art career at the Art Students League, but took on a day job with the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation. In this photograph, “he has the look of a young cadet and the bearing of a fisherman with his prize catch,” Goldman writes, “a billboard 

Rosenquist didn’t move from the Midwest to New York City in 1955 to be a union man, but his continued education in billboard painting proved invaluable to his artistic development, inspiring the materials and techniques he would use for the majority of his decades-spanning career. And after all, it wasn’t that unusual, Goldman said, for an artist to dabble in the commercial sphere. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, for instance, both supported themselves with illustration jobs before their art careers took off.

During this period, Rosenquist would jump between billboard scaffolds and his own home studio, where he was painting small, gray abstractions. But soon enough, Rosenquist decided to take everything he had learned from painting billboards and apply it to his art. He left the Art Students League and quit his job with Artkraft Strauss to paint full time. He began to produce huge canvases with the same smooth paints he had used on the billboards, incorporating found imagery from advertisements and Lifemagazine, carefully rendering the disparate references in a colorful, sensuous style.

Beyond subject matter, Rosenquist also carried over practical things from his billboard painting days. He’d learned how to mix the industrial paint used on signs, taking note of its bright, slick qualities, and, crucially, the transformative powers of scale. “He was a natural,” Goldman explained. “He could take a 5-inch photograph, which he used for reference, and scale it up to 15 feet.” When he was up on a billboard, Rosenquist had to paint in fragments. “It taught him about abstraction,” she said, “because when he painted a movie star’s cheek, all he saw was a field of pink. When he painted a large letter, all he saw was the color of that letter.”

While his use of advertisements and magazine imagery might seem directly in line with works by other Pop artists of his generation, Rosenquist took great pains to conceal his sources and complicate their meanings. He culled his imagery from magazines that were 10 years old, in order to evade nostalgia or a direct association with a specific product (to that end, he seldom included the names of the products or other identifying texts in his works).

The paintings are not about the commodity. “The fragments Rosenquist chose to paint are the elements out of which he made pictures,” Goldman explained. “He might be saying something about the products of a consumer culture, about life in a world of things,” she continued, “but that was never his main point. He had strong opinions, but above all, he was a painter making tough pictures.”

In his 1961 painting The Light That Won’t Fail I, for instance, a plastic comb umbrellas a curious melange of images painted in varying gray, black, white, and yellow tones. A picture-perfect woman in dark lipstick sets her gaze upward toward the comb. Overlapping images abridge her face; what seems to be a clipping from a stockings advertisement overlays the shadow of a hand sensually holding a cigarette. 

Yet the narrative element of the painting is not essential or fixed. As Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella Galleries, recalled, “If I spoke to Jim about a painting 10 to 20 years apart, he’d tell me different things.” The artist’s imagery, he said, sparked an idea that “could be quite abstract,” rather than a narrative. Goldman concurred: “His work is as close to abstraction in its way as it is to Pop. He took enlarged fragments of things and combined them into compelling and mysterious paintings.”

“I’m interested in contemporary vision,” Rosenquist once said, “the flicker of chrome, reflections, rapid associations, quick flashes of light. Bing-bang! I don’t do anecdotes. I accumulate experiences.”

In 1962, Gene Swenson, a critic on assignment for ARTnews, visited Rosenquist’s cramped studio. “I watched his flamboyance with disbelief,” Swenson recalled in his writing. “The aggressive, monumental, fearful scale of his paintings made my stomach and my head retreat in painful confusion.” Swenson went on to disdainfully compare Rosenquist to a “story teller out of Paul Bunyan country,” describing his paintings as “odd, unexpected Blue Ox–scaled images.” To Swenson, Rosenquist seemed like “a sign painter who had seen better days.”

Being thought of as a sign painter might not have been such a terrible insult. Findlay sees a “nuanced directness” in Rosenquist’s Midwestern roots, which influenced how he thought about his work. “He was very practical,” Findlay said. “He approached being an artist with a blue-collar ambition to make things.”

Far from a drudging, pay-your-dues experience, Rosenquist’s time as a billboard painter informed every facet of his life. Years later, the artist loved to regale anyone who would listen with stories about the strange events he witnessed from his perch on Manhattan rooftops, and “what it was like to paint Davy Crockett’s fur hat, Schenley Whiskey bottles, and the lettering for Hebrew National salami,” Goldman writes in the catalogue. Up on the scaffolding, he had a perfect view of America.