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John Lamb, Published October 03 2010

Plains Art Museum lands James Rosenquist mural

After decades of trying to get a James Rosenquist painting, the Plains Art Museum is having a little fun with their new prized possession.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” a recent mailing stated, referring to Rosenquist’s “The North Dakota Mural,” a project that’s been years in the making, which will be unveiled Thursday.

Thursday’s unveiling will be like unwrapping a great big gift to the community, says Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains.

“To have a major new work by one of the most prominent artists today is a great gift to the community.”

It’s hard to talk about the painting and not speak in sizes.

At 13 feet wide by 24 feet tall, the painting will rival the sculptures along the Enchanted Highway near Regent, N.D., for the largest art in the state, Sheehy says.

Even the price tag is big. An anonymous regional donor offered $600,000, and the artist matched the donation.

“It’s a big deal to have a giant work of art by a national treasure like James Rosenquist,” she says.

North Dakota not only gains a big piece of art, the state also gets back one of the biggest names in 20th-century American art.

“We’re kind of reclaiming him as a native son,” Sheehy says.

The Grand Forks native will be honored with a proclamation declaring it James Rosenquist Day by Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who sits on the museum’s board of directors.

Filling in the space

While Rosenquist normally splits his time between Aripeka, Fla., and New York City, he was born in Grand Forks in 1933.

Though his parents moved around looking for work, Rosenquist recalls time spent on his grandparents’ farm north of Grand Forks in Mekinock.

“It was very rural beyond rural with no phone or electricity,” he says. “It was a different way of life there. … We made do with what we had.”

He recalls how his aunt Dolores played with him, how his grandfather would drill holes in the ice on the Turtle River to freeze a new smooth surface for ice skating, and how he was put to work shoveling grain in the great grain harvest of 1946. He says being commissioned to do the North Dakota mural was “homey.”

“It was a very personal thing,” Rosenquist says from his New York home. “That’s a very personal question, ‘What do you think about where you came from?’ ”

One of the big things he still thinks about is space, and lots of it.

“We could see the neighbor’s place way far away, and you could see when Siever Svenson went to bed because he put his lamp out,” he says. “It was very spare out there, but to me it was interesting.”

During a later North Dakota visit, he returned to the site of his grandparents’ farm to find the house and the town now gone, with a field in their places.

“That was kind of peculiar, sad, strange,” he recalls.

Rosenquist still sees inspiration from the vast openness of the Northern Plains in his work “probably all the time because it’s spacey. … Those big spaces are the reasons why I paint big.”

Signs of the times

After settling in Minneapolis in 1945, Rosenquist graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1954 with a two-year associate of art degree.

Growing up with that panoramic view of the Dakota landscape, it may seem natural that Rosenquist’s first major canvases were billboards. In ’54, he relocated to New York where his high-profile painted advertisements would be seen by millions.

While he perfected his craft mixing and applying paints high above city streets, by the early 1960s, Rosenquist was making a name for himself in galleries with smaller 7-foot canvases.

After years spent painting product placements, he developed a style as a pop culture collagist, mixing imagery from advertisements but without trying to sell the goods. One of his first major pieces, “President Elect” finished in 1961, depicted John F. Kennedy with two hands emerging from his face holding cake. The right side of the 7-by-12-foot painting shows the body of a car. The image suggests the campaign promises candidates make.

His work made a mark, and by the mid-’60s, Rosenquist was established at the front of the pop art movement.

In a New Yorker magazine review of Rosenquist’s 2003 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, critic Peter Schjeldahl called the artist “one of the big three of American Pop painting” with iconic pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Schjeldahl, himself a native Fargoan, considers Rosenquist’s landmark 1964-65 “F-111” “the Great American Painting.” The 85-foot-long piece layers images of fighter planes with a little girl getting her hair done, a mushroom cloud, a beach umbrella and spaghetti.

Schjeldahl commented that Rosenquist “has always striven, as a matter of principle, to make his works befuddingly sensational at first sight.”

Though Rosenquist knew Warhol and Lichtenstein, he spent more time with artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Some might say too much time.

Rosenquist recalls spending seven months partying every night with Rauschenberg, who he says drank a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day for more than 30 years.

“And that didn’t even kill him,” Rosenquist laughs. “I couldn’t keep up with that boy.”

Outliving his contemporaries, the 76-year-old artist credits his longevity to cutting way back on his drinking and to “friendships with big, famous doctors who take care of me.”

A new view of Dakota

While he now says pop art is dead, Rosenquist still uses bits of identifiable imagery, even if the piece on the whole isn’t easily defined.

“The things I put together are really expendable, but they leave you with an idea,” he says.

Along with the state seal, “The North Dakota Mural” features the state bird and fish; there’s also a cowboy hat and what look to be teepee poles. While the items may be connected in relating to the West, the pieces float through space, above Earth on the 12 connected canvases. “When you go to North Dakota and you walk out into a field, on the lower left, there’s a cloud, and the lower right, there’s a cloud, and you feel like you’re standing on a dome – it’s so damn flat. Flat as flat,” Rosenquist explains. “It’s a very odd feeling in North Dakota, at least for me.”

“Whatever painting I do, I think there’s more in it than meets the eye,” he says. “You try to impart information into a picture and let it seep out slowly. While my paintings are realistic in a lot of ways, they are abstract because they mean a lot of things.”

Schjeldahl wrote: “You know that a work by Rosenquist is good when your futile efforts to make sense of it run in rather precise circles – mental wheels turning, pleasurably, in a void of decidable meaning.”

If you go

Click here for more information on the debut of "The North Dakota Mural."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533