Welcome to the Water Planet
Paperworks by James Rosenquist
10 June – 12 September 2006
Interview with artist James Rosenquist and curator Jane Kinsman,
with Beverly Coe asking questions on her behalf. Aripeka, Florida May 2006
Q: Would you describe your early days as an artist in New York.
James Rosenquist: I was studying art at the University of Minnesota in the fifties with Cameron Booth, a wonderful teacher who was 10 years older than the year. He studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich after World War II. He said, ‘Jim, there’s nothing for you in Minneapolis, you should go to New York and study with Hans Hofmann. I was interested in composition. Hans quit teaching, moved to Provincetown, so I tried for an out of town scholarship with the Art Students League and I won it for a year’s schooling. So I arrived in the autumn of 1955 with 350 bucks in my pocket and started at the Art Students League.
You have to remember, New York at the time was a very different place than it is today. New York City was almost empty because the war vets who lived in Manhattan originally, families, moved to Long Island or New Jersey, so rents were cheap. I had a room on West 57th Street for eight bucks a week. I had later on a five room apartment on the Upper East Side for 31 dollars a month. So it was a very, very inexpensive place to be and a wonderful thing to live in a cosmopolitan city with all the advantages and not have to worry about money too much. Although I did, I didn’t have any money, so I was always a starving artist, as many artists are.
New York was a fascinating place. I had been painting outdoor signs in Minneapolis for General Auto Advertising and I transferred into the union in New York, the Sign Painters and Pictorial Painters Union Local 230, which was largely run by Italians, and they said there was no work for me. But I made a speech saying I respected the rights of all the older gentlemen in the union and I’m willing to take my turn and they went, ‘Ha, ha, ha. Okay, bring your money around Thursday’.
So I joined the union, went to work in Brooklyn painting Schenley whiskey signs above practically every candy store in Brooklyn. I painted 145 of them. After about number 50 I got so tired of this that, so boring, that on the label instead of writing, ‘This spirit is made from the finest grains’ and so on, I wrote ‘Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow’. I was totally bombarded by advertising, which I didn’t care for but it was something I did. I think that is probably my relationship to what is now called Pop Art.
I was bombarded by advertising right in front of my nose. I graduated from Brooklyn to Times Square and I painted the Astor Victoria Theatre seven times, which was 395 feet (120 metres) wide and 58 feet (17 metres) high. I also painted everything good enough to sell. You had to paint beer shirts, movie stars, anything good enough to sell it, otherwise you’d be fired.
So New York was a much different place and a young artist would have time to gather steam in New York. I mean, the people that I knew, middle-aged people I knew, were commercial artists but their fine art was a private social club and there was no demand for it, fine art, these avant garde artists, so they would have cocktail parties and show their art to each other but not in galleries or anything until probably a few years passed.
So I think that’s a great advantage of that era because now it’s so expensive in New York that the young artist thinks he or she has to show their fine art immediately and the critics say they stink and they go, ‘Oh, no, I really am bad? Oh, that’s terrible’, and then they have to work twice as hard to show the audience that they’re actually pretty good.
Q: Your use of collage seems important in your working method. How did this style of using a collage develop when you began working as an artist? Why did it appeal in those early days?
James Rosenquist: Well, all that working in collage, it started for me … well, way back during World War II in a museum in Ohio I saw a show in a museum where right next to each other was a little painting, a flower, live flower and a shrunken head, and I wondered what the hell does that mean?
Then, you know, naturally Kurt Schwitters, he’s allegedly responsible for contemporary collage, but my experience was going to work for Artkraft Strauss Company with a lot of dissimilar material sitting on a desk, I would have to scale a lot of this material into one sign. It was all different sizes and so I’d have to scale it up, scale it down, put it in place, and then they’d send me out to paint this big sign, whether it was for the movies or it was for the Castro Convertible (sofa beds) sign on 47th street or the DeMille (theatre) sign on 47th street.
So I learned how to square things up from any size to billboard, one foot squares or two foot squares on a big sign, and that probably started me thinking about collage. I would take disparate images, put them together and try to make another sense out of them. It was almost like the idea of listening to radio and thinking about something in the abstract.
Q: How did you use collage for your paper works you made with Ken Tyler?
James Rosenquist: Well, I knew Ken Tyler for a number of years but I never worked with him. He called me up and he said, ‘Jim, I’ve got a new facility up in Mount Kisco New York, why don’t you come out here and light the place up’.
So, okay. So I went to see him, and Ken had very small presses, I mean, the press beds were rather small, but we wanted to do prints 5 by 6 feet (1.5 by 1.8 metres), 6 by 7 feet (1.8 by 2.1 metres), 10 feet (3.0 metres) and so on. So what did we do? Well, anyway, I brought him one collage and he said, ‘Is this all you’ve got?’ I said, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll bring in another one’.
So we had enough trouble doing the first one. What we did was he ground up Chinese rag paper pulp into a big porridge like material and put it on a big piece of felt so it would look like a quarter inch thick rug made out of mush. Then I coloured this paper pulp for a background and then on top of this stuff, this paper pulp, I made lithographs on a regular small lithograph press and we adhered those to the paper pulp after it had been dried. So they really became like gigantic collages because Ken didn’t have the presses large enough.
Q: When you made the paper works with Ken over the months from September 1988 to December 1989 and again in 1992 at the Mount Kisco workshop, how did your working methods change?
James Rosenquist: Well, the one thing was the colour that I would spray on to the paper pulp with a house ceiling spraying machine for paint. The colours in this water, this watercolour, was a completely different colour than what it would dry up to be, almost like scenic art paint.
So sometimes you would want a very, very faint blue-grey and it would look like just plain water, dish water. Other times you’d want a rich red and the richest red after it was dried and pressed would become pink. So you’d really have to test a lot of colours for spraying on these colour backgrounds.
Q: Did you like working in paper pulp?
James Rosenquist: Working in paper pulp for me, and Ken, was a great experiment. Ken really produced this situation and he was ingenious in producing this because he had a mill that ground up the paper and then these huge hydraulic presses that would press the water out of the paper pulp, so it was purely his invention and I think I’ve never seen it done anywhere else to this day. He was a great innovator.
Q: In the light of your express desire to be more spontaneous in a print workshop, did you succeed?
James Rosenquist: I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know if I succeeded or not. I know that financially it was a big success for Ken and myself, but I just worked like a worker, sort of blindly, being excited by this adventure and it all seemed to come out pretty well.
Q: How did this working method at Tyler Graphics contrast with your earlier ways of making prints?
James Rosenquist: Well, Ken Tyler is a great innovator so the difference between Ken Tyler and other print shops was that if you came with an idea for Ken that seemed extremely difficult, he’d sort of think it over, shake his head, and then he’d walk away. The next day he would come out with a great big welded aluminum extrusion, he’d spare no expense to have something made out of magnesium or aluminum or whatever merely as a template to do a work. If it worked, fine, if it didn’t work he’d merely throw it in the parking lot. But he would do and try everything. He was a total enthusiast.
Q: Do you think that the experience that you had working with Ken at Mount Kisco subsequently affected your methods and painting?
James Rosenquist: Probably only in maybe terms of colour, because I was always making rather large paintings and to make a print that approached the size of a 6 by 6 foot (1.8 by 1.8 metres) painting or whatever seemed to be very huge
Initially when I started painting back in 1960, ’61, I was trying to do a new kind of artwork where I tried to make a mysterious painting by painting fragments, very realistic fragments of realistic things, and the last one would be so huge that you couldn’t quite identify it, although it seemed real or whatever, so I’ve tried to make a mysterious painting by the viewer identifying the pieces in the painting at a rate of speed. All I wanted to do was mysterious paintings.
Q: The Water Planet series and related works House of Fire and Space Dust were made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What were the issues you were concerned with when you were making these works?
James Rosenquist: Well, first of all it’s called Welcome to the Water Planet and I’ve always thought of aliens visiting us and wondering who we are or what we are and what do we do, so there really was a pun or a joke because Welcome to the Water Planet, what you see is what you get, or what you expect is pretty much what it is.
So ecologically our country has been going on a disastrous path towards oblivion with our government and just a handful of people recognise the ecology of our world, the oceans and so forth, and so these art works called Welcome to the Water Planet were comments on this delicacy of our ecology.
Q: What message do these works have for us today one or two decades later?
James Rosenquist: Well, unfortunately it’s the same old story, that our government policies continue to sort of kill the ecology of the world.
Q: Any other thoughts?
James Rosenquist: Well, it was a great deal of work and fun to work with Ken Tyler and now his shop is no longer available. I believe he’s raising thoroughbred cattle. Also in my life, outdoor pictorial sign painting no longer exists. That was a thing that happened once and I was very fortunate to be able to experience that. My goal in that was I wanted to learn how to paint the Sistine Chapel. Now, I could learn the mechanics, I don’t have the content but I could paint practically anything huge if I had the idea. That’s about it.