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Jasmine Maki, Forum News Service, Published August 21 2013

ND's 'best-known painter’: ND Museum of Art hosts James Rosenquist’s one-piece exhibition

GRAND FORKS – Stretching from the floor to the ceiling, North Dakota native James Rosenquist’s “Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil” barely fits in the East gallery of the North Dakota Museum of Art.

The painting, which is 17-by-46 feet, is the sole piece of artwork in “James Rosenquist: An Exhibition Celebrating His 80th Birthday,” which opens at 7 tonight with a public reception. Jennifer Angus’ “Midnight in the Garden,” also opens today.

“I see these two shows as a gift to the public,” said Laurel Reuter, director of the museum. “(Rosenquist) is certainly North Dakota’s best-known painter.”

Rosenquist, who was born in Grand Forks, spent his early years in nearby Mekinock, before moving to the Twin Cities and eventually attending the Minneapolis School of Art at the Minneapolis Art Institute.

He is considered by many to be one of the protagonists in the pop-art movement because he created large- scale collage-like paintings. But Judith Goldman, curator of the exhibit and author of many books about Rosenquist, said he was much more than a pop artist.

“I don’t think he really was pop,” she said. “He wasn’t making a satiric point about culture. He was using these fragments to portray his inner feelings.”

Goldman said Rosenquist used fragments of everyday imagery to create very ambitious paintings that didn’t need to be completely understood.

“They’re so brilliantly structured that we don’t need to know what they mean,” she said.

Thinking big

Rosenquist was interested in large-scale paintings and eventually became a billboard painter. Working on billboards and the sides of barns, Reuter said, Rosenquist became highly skilled at painting in large scale, which is done by planning on a small scale, breaking it into a grid and scaling up the squares to the larger format.

Both of Rosenquist’s parents were involved in aviation at Grand Forks Air Force Base, and he often took to the sky with them. Reuter said flying and North Dakota have influenced his work, particularly the large scale and size but also the content or matter of his artwork.

“Light is one of the dominant factors in Rosenquist’s work, and he’s taken that from here,” Goldman said. She explained that the light in the Midwest is different than light elsewhere. It’s a cold, white winter light, she said.

Goldman said Rosenquist told her, “I grew up in North Dakota, where the land is completely flat like a screen on which you can project whatever you can imagine.” Reuter said she believes the Midwest was definitely a source of his adventurous nature and imagination.

As one of the first artists to work with fragmentation, Goldman said Rosenquist has had a tremendous influence on art and is admired by many.

His artwork is on display in cities around the world including Washington; New York; Berlin; and Valencia, Spain.

His piece, “Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil,” has been shown in New York, London and Moscow. Now, it’s come in pieces from Rosenquist’s studio in Florida to be shown at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Homage to his mother

An anvil, sewing needle and high heels are among the few distinguishable items that stand out in Rosenquist’s massive painting full of black and white iridescence.

“The whole thing is just bathed in the night sky,” Reuter said. “He just puts in these motifs and lets you fill it in. And that’s what makes it so powerful.”

The piece, which was completed in 1988, one year after Rosenquist’s mother died, is an homage to his mother’s life.

“The high heels represent his mom, and he’s placed her on a pedestal,” Reuter said.

Rosenquist’s mother was a pilot in North Dakota, and in his autobiography, “Painting Below Zero,” Rosenquist said his mother’s hero was Amelia Earhart.

“I remember asking her if she had ever gotten her pilot’s license,” he said in the book. “She said, ‘No, that was before women’s liberation, but I flew all over the place anyway.’ ”

In “Painting Below Zero,” Rosenquist describes how his mother was unhappy at the end of her life because she didn’t have time to accomplish all of the things she wanted. He said his painting has to do with the end and with dying and is a commemoration of her unfulfilled life. It portrays how the tiniest point of intuition – represented by the needle – can become a much larger production.

“The eye of the needle, what goes through there is the thread of inspiration,” Goldman said. “Rosenquist said all the sparks and fragments are inspiration.”

If people take one thing away from the painting, Reuter said she hopes it is the imagination and the magnificence of the environment we live in.

“If one can allow (himself) to imagine, one can do large and wonderful things, but you have to be able to imagine,” she said.

Rosenquist’s exhibit runs through Nov. 11. A public birthday celebration for the artist is set for 4 p.m. Oct. 20 at the North Dakota Museum of Art.