James Rosenquist’s Day Job Painting Billboards Led to His Greatest Work

During this time, Rosenquist jumped between billboard frames and his own home studio, where he painted small, gray abstractions. But soon Rosenquist decided to apply everything he had learned from painting billboards to his art. He left the Art Students League and quit his job at Artkraft Strauss to paint full-time. He began making huge canvases in the same smooth colors he’d used on the billboards, incorporating found images from advertisements and Life magazine, and carefully rendering the various references in a colorful, sensual style.

In addition to the subject, Rosenquist also adopted practical things from his time as a poster painter. He had learned how to mix the industrial paint used on signs, taking note of its bright, smooth properties and, most importantly, the transformative powers of scaling. “He was a natural,” explained Goldman. “He could take a 5-inch photo to use for reference and scale it to 15 feet.” When he was on a billboard, Rosenquist had to paint in fragments. “It taught him about abstraction,” she said, “because when he was painting a movie star’s cheek, all he saw was a pink field. When he was painting a large letter, all he saw was the color of that letter. “

While his use of advertisements and magazine images seems to be directly consistent with works by other pop artists of his generation, Rosenquist went to great lengths to hide his sources and complicate their meaning. He collected his images from magazines that were 10 years old to avoid nostalgia or direct association with a particular product (for this purpose he rarely included the names of the products or other identifying text in his works).

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