James Rosenquist was an American artist and one of the proponents of the pop art movement. Drawing from his background working in sign painting, Rosenquist's pieces often explored the role of advertising and consumer culture in art and society, utilizing techniques he learned making commercial art to depict popular cultural icons and mundane everyday objects. While his works have often been compared to those from other key figures of the pop art movement, such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Rosenquist's pieces were unique in the way that they often employed elements of surrealism using fragments of advertisements and cultural imagery to emphasize the overwhelming nature of ads. He was a 2001 inductee into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
Rosenquist was born on November 29, 1933, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the only child of Louis and Ruth Rosenquist. His parents were amateur pilots of Swedish descent who moved from town to town to look for work, finally settling in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His mother, who was also a painter, encouraged her son to have an artistic interest. In junior high school, Rosenquist won a short-term scholarship to study at the Minneapolis School of Art and subsequently studied painting at the University of Minnesota from 1952 to 1954. In 1955, at the age of 21, he moved to New York City on scholarship to study at the Art Students League, studying under painters such as Edwin Dickinson and George Grosz. Talking about his experience at the Art Students League, Rosenquist said "I studied only with the abstract artists. They had commercial artists there teaching commercial work, I didn't bother with that. I was only interested in – see, here's how it started. I was interested in learning how to paint the Sistine Chapel. It sounds ambitious, but I wanted to go to mural school". While studying in New York, Rosenquist took up a job as a chauffeur, before deciding to join the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. As a member of the union, Rosenquist would paint billboards around Times Square, ultimately becoming the lead painter for Artkraft‐Strauss and painting displays and windows across Fifth Avenue. By 1960, Rosenquist abandoned painting signs after a friend died by falling from scaffolding on the job. Instead of working on commercial pieces, he chose to focus on personal projects in his own studio, developing his own distinct style of painting that retained the kind of imagery, bold hues, and scale that he utilized while he painted billboards.
Rosenquist's career in commercial art began when he was 18, after his mother encouraged him to pursue a summer job painting. He started by painting Phillips 66 signs, going to gas stations from North Dakota to Wisconsin. After leaving school, Rosenquist took a series of odd jobs and then turned to sign painting. From 1957 to 1960, Rosenquist earned his living as a billboard painter. Rosenquist applied sign-painting techniques to the large-scale paintings he began creating in 1960. Like other pop artists, Rosenquist adapted the visual language of advertising and pop culture to the context of fine art. "I painted billboards above every candy store in Brooklyn. "I got so I could paint a Schenley whiskey bottle in my sleep", he wrote in his 2009 autobiography, Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art. Time magazine stated that "his powerful graphic style and painted montages helped define the 1960s Pop Art movement."
In 2003, art critic Peter Schjeldahl asked of Rosenquist's application of sign painting techniques to fine art thus: "[W]as importing the method into art a bit of a cheap trick? So were Warhol's photo silk-screening and Lichtenstein's lining of panels from comic strips. The goal in all cases was to fuse painting aesthetics with the semiotics of media-drenched contemporary reality. The naked efficiency of anti-personal artmaking defines classic Pop. It's as if someone were inviting you to inspect the fist with which he simultaneously punches you."
Rosenquist had his first two solo exhibitions at the Green Gallery in 1962 and 1963. He exhibited his painting F-111, a room-scale painting, at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1965, with which he achieved international acclaim.
But Rosenquist said the following about his involvement in the Pop Art movement: "They [art critics] called me a Pop artist because I used recognizable imagery. The critics like to group people together. I didn't meet Andy Warhol until 1964. I did not really know Andy or Roy Lichtenstein that well. We all emerged separately."
In 1971 Rosenquist came to South Florida after receiving an offer from Donald Saff, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Fine Arts, to participate in the school's Graphicstudio, a collaborative art initiative. In the years following Rosenquist remained a key contributor to the studio, cooperating with students and other artists and producing numerous works of his own, ultimately creating his Aripeka studio in 1976. Rosenquist would continue to travel to Florida throughout his career with the artist developing several commissioned works for the community including two murals for Florida's state capitol building and a sculpture for Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, in addition to serving on the Tampa Museum of Art's Board of Trustees.
Rosenquist's paintings have been on display in the lobby of Key Tower in Cleveland, Ohio. His F-111 was displayed there for many years.
After his acclaim, Rosenquist produced large-scale commissions. This includes the three-painting suite The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997–1998) for Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany, and a painting that was planned for the ceiling of the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France.