This work is typical of that style. In intimate studied detail, it shows a shimmering seascape sunset, reflected in the roundel of a single coin as it is slotted into the distinctive concave groove of an American payphone. The magnified intensity of every element is mesmeric, creating an overwhelming sense of a specific moment within a wider narrative. This sense is exacerbated by a second painting called Beach Call – 5 Minutes Later, which shows an almost identical scene, different only in its duskier colour palette and the fact that the sun’s reflection dips lower towards the sea. This evocation of intrigue, of a story half-portrayed, is typical of Rosenquist who wanted to create: “a new kind of mysterious painting” (James Rosenquist quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Haunch of Venison, James Rosenquist, 2006, p. 108).
The artist’s synthesis of eclectic stylistic precedents is abundantly evident in this work. We might notice the influence of Roy Lichtenstein in the portrayal of a narrative fragment, and the graphic, almost cartoonish, style. Meanwhile, the bright colour field contained within the coin’s surface evokes Abstract Expressionist antecedents, betraying a debt to the artistry of Mark Rothko in its blocks of bold harmonious colour. Furthermore, Rosenquist’s training as a billboard painter – which in turn became his trademark as an artist – is evident in his graphic approximation of figurative details: the pad of the huge finger is perfectly illustrated in eight deft stripes, while the cusped curve of the cuticle is delineated in a single cursive stroke. This punchy mode of depiction gives the work that sense of instant impact that is surely derived from advertising images.
The work is filled with a sense of juxtaposition. In terms of colour, we can observe the hot glimmering sunset, executed in high-key ochres and umbers, presented in stark contrast with the thumb and finger, cool and diffuse in greys and mossy green. In terms of scale, that natural phenomenon which fills the whole sky with dusky light is confined and curtailed to a small central disc, while tiny fingertips and a single coin slot loom large across the rest of the composition. These contrasts fill the work with a gregarious sense of subversive fun, and charge the composition with seditious energy.
By 1979, James Rosenquist was at the peak of his career. He had just exhibited at the Venice Biennale and had recently been appointed a six-year term as a member of the National Council of the Arts. This sense of confidence floods the present work: in its creation of a fragmented mysterious narrative, in its synthesis of abstract, commercial, and Pop influences, and in its juxtapositions of colour and scale, it is in keeping with the best works of his practice.
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