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110 Minutes With James Rosenquist

January 21, 2010

The artist painted the town—from Times Square billboards to the Whitney—and painted the town, as a new memoir reveals. But the town he painted is gone.

(Photo: Alex Lentati/Evening Standard/Rex USA)

Right here,” says the artist James Rosenquist, pointing above the Palace Theatre on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 47th Street, “there was one big sign with Harry Belafonte’s face on it, and they pulled me up from the street with a chair to touch up his nose, because they scratched it putting it up.”

After reading his just-published rich, vivid memoir, Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art, I meet him in Times Square so we can look at the 360-degree orgy of digital-age signage. But Rosenquist, 76, in jeans and black work boots, affably blunt and salty in a way that still bespeaks his Depression-era North Dakota upbringing, keeps looking past the flashing LEDs to the ghosts of the billboards he worked on.

He pivots, points up again. “Between 47th and 48th was a club called the Latin Quarter. On top of the roof, I painted Smokey the Bear and JOIN THE NAVY signs.” He points down the street corner. “I spilled a goddamn gallon of purple paint right on the sidewalk at noon. It went off like a bomb—it just exploded!”

Not long after that, Rosenquist’s career exploded. His innovation, much like Andy Warhol’s, was to bring the imagery—and the scale—of the billboards he’d been painting into the gallery. The work was gorgeous and sensual and ironic simultaneously, a bright, surreal jumble, much like Times Square itself. Rosenquist’s epic, humongous 1965 painting F-111—it’s 86 feet long—captured as no one else had the fantastic, horrifying American cornucopia of gleaming war machines and canned spaghetti and mushroom clouds and Firestone tires, all weirdly harmonized and of a piece. He’s still working in that jangly genre—if anything, his paintings are more vivid and surreal than ever. He’s also as influential as he ever was. It’s hard to look at Richard Prince’s work, say, or Marilyn Minter’s, without seeing Rosenquist’s shadow.

Read more: 110 Minutes With James Rosenquist — New York Magazine

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