Schöner Wohnen, 1964
Catalogo Bolaffi 1965-1966, p. 305, illustrated
Fabbri, ed., L'Arte Moderna, vol. XIV, no. 125, illustrated in color
John Rublowsky, Pop Art, New York, 1965, pp. 96-97, illustrated (view of the present work in the artist's studio)
White Bread, 1964, is a classic example of James Rosenquist's tongue-in-cheek Pop realism. Painted in oil but mimicking the bold techi-color, industrial paints of Madison Avenue's graphic advertising style, White Bread exudes an aura of bizarre nostalgia. So American. So mid-west. So familiar. The imagery is common place but the format is revolutionary.
Born in North Dakota in 1933, Rosenquist came of age in the American mid-west of the 1950s. As a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1953, Rosenquist began his formative career as a commercial billboard painter. Lured by the promises of the big city and the opportunity to study with Hans Hoffman at the Art Students League, Rosenquist came to New York in 1955. Though Hofmann had since departed for Provincetown, Rosenquist accepted a one year scholarship to study at the League. But his growing disillusionment with the academic exaltation of Abstract Expressionism, led Rosenquist to eschew a formal arts education and in 1957 he found himself once again on the ladder painting billboards, perched high above Times Square, in the commercial-epicenter of the world. The skills that Rosenquist perfected as a billboard artist informed his work and launched him towards a new style of painting and expression, firmly breaking away from Abstract Expressionism and spiraling down a truly revolutionary path as a quintessential American artist in the age of Pop.
Describing his transition from billboard painter to 'artist' and how his commercial career informed his Art, Rosenquist explains: "I had to manipulate the paint well enough to sell a product. I had to make food look delicious and cigarettes seem smokable. I had to make Coca-Cola look good... I was really throwing myself into the work, mixing paint and painting big images in a grandiose manner. Then, I began to realize that my style of painting billboards had an accuracy and a grandeur. It might have been kitsch, but it had a strength to it... I had a real thrust and thought - how can I use these magnified fragments to make an abstract painting? I thought I could change people's heads around by forcing them to identify these fragments at a certain rate of speed. It was a way to put mystery into my art... No one else was making paintings like these. Everyone was smearing and splashing. I knew that whatever I did my art wasn't going to look like everyone else's."(James Rosenquist, 1991 interview with Judith Goldman in James Rosenquist: The Early Pictures 1961-1964, New York, 1992, pp. 91, 98 - 100)
By 1960, Rosenquist had established his studio in Coentis Slip, an East Side building populated with artists including Robert Indiana. Richard Bellamy gave Rosenquist his first major break with a show at his Green Gallery in 1962. In 1964, Bellamy closed shop and Rosenquist was added to Leo Castelli's stable of artists, including of course Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein placing him within the growing Pop Art movement. Rosenquist's chosen subjects, inspired by the pages of 1950s Life magazine, referenced classic American imagery: cars, Coca-Cola and white bread. Drawing on more 'normal' objects than Warhol's brand name products and Lichtenstein's comic strip characters, Rosenquist's collages and enlarged sections of generic cars and food products brought an element of abstraction into his canvases.
Using the same smooth painting style from his billboard days, Rosenquist's bold, graphic style here thrusts giant, almost menacing in scale, pieces of cascading bread, spread thick with piercing yellow marmalade in the viewer's face with utter-abandon. What are we to make of this? 4 ½ foot tall pieces of bread, treated in the hyper-graphic flatness of advertising, emblazed in pure, synthetic color. The image is instantly recognizable and perfectly relatable, but treated in this style and scale, taken out of any context, the viewer is led to question the seemingly obvious meaning of white bread. In 1969, Lawrence Alloway said of Rosenquist's works: "just as his objects are painted in a way that makes them simultaneously explicit yet elusive, so the interjection of allegory is felt by the spectator, but without his becoming dependant on the artist's explanation. There is, I think, an inherent obscurity in Rosenquist's work... the function of the obscurity in his work is to protect him from the banal....Rosenquist thinks in terms of objects with symbolic meanings and in terms of allegories about man's place in society, but his moralism, though articulate, is secretive." (from The Nation, May 5, 1969 as cited in Exh. Cat., Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museums, 1972, p. 105)
White Bread perfectly exemplifies this sense of obscured allegory in Rosenquist's work. The streamlined color-palette and graphic qualities of the hyper-flat picture plane are a clear break from the school of Abstract Expressionism that dominated America in the 1950s. The art of the 60s, the growing strength of the Pop movement, became the voice of a new generation. James Rosenquist's large scale works, use of commercial subjects and industrial color palette place him within the context of Pop. However, his tendency to obscure imagery and hint at an elusive allegory contained within, disconnects him from fellow Pop artists such as Andy Warhol. Where Warhol's repetition of Campbell's Soup Cans could be said to be commenting on America's growing obsession with materialism and the machinization of society; Rosenquist's art seems much more directly related to an experience with an object, or its use as a symbolic metaphor. White Bread is a powerful image that boldly confronts the viewer, at first with its simple hint of nostalgia, but then, is fully resonates as a complex work of Art deserving fuller attention and re-examination.
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