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Given James Rosenquist's proclivity for working on a vast scale as well as his appropriation of advertising imagery and sign-painting techniques, it is no surprise that he worked in the 1950s as a billboard painter in the Midwest and New York. A central figure in American Pop art, he attained international recognition with F-111 (1964–65)—a modern-day history painting, 86 feet in length, which many consider an antiwar statement. Whether addressing society or politics, the economy or the environment, Rosenquist has been inspired by current events throughout his career.
When Rosenquist visited Berlin not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the great disparity between the former East and West zones was palpable. Rosenquist nonetheless witnessed an “emerging energy” and noted, "I thought of a person struggling and working, like a swimmer in the fog, going somewhere, not knowing quite where [he or she is] going, but forcefully working, working, working." It was timely that the artist received a commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim, a gallery in the heart of former East Berlin, now a thriving cosmopolitan center.
Rosenquist described The Swimmer in the Econo-mist, a three-painting suite that conveys the epic technological, political, and economic momentum of the past century, as a "diary of the terrible temper of the times." The artist reprises the wraparound environment of F-111 and recalls his earlier works Masquerade of the Military Industrial Complex Looking Down on the Insect World (1992) and Military Intelligence (1994). The Swimmer in the Econo-mist additionally includes quotations from Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937), a depiction of the Nazi German bombing of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. These abstracted images, which evoke painful memories of war and fascism, are immersed in a tumultuous vortex (an optical device new to Rosenquist's iconography) and followed by a panoramic meteor blast of fragmented consumer products. The Swimmer in the Econo-mist further presents a tableau of images that signifies the challenge to assimilate East Berlin and the unquestioning labor of German workers that enabled re-unification. The focal point is the conical hair dryer from F-111, but a proliferation of lipstick tubes have replaced the little girl. One recognizes too the drill bits from Rosenquist's Industrial Cottage (1977) and the colors of the German flag as a window-view sunrise. Although reminding one of the tragic lessons of the past, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist is also a portrait of Germany's dynamic present and optimistic future.