Popular Culture and Media Images

Popular Culture and Media Images

“I’m amazed and excited and fascinated about the way things are thrust at us.... We are attacked by radio and television and visual communications... at such a speed and with such a force that painting now seem[s] very old fashioned. Why shouldn’t it be done with that power and gusto [of advertising], with that impact?”
–James Rosenquist

Media images are a recurring presence in Rosenquist’s work. He underscores the fact that we are constantly bombarded by advertising and has frequently remarked on the numbing impact of the media-saturated environment and its application to his art. In an interview he stated, “Being a child in America you are getting advertised at. It’s like getting hit on the head with a ball-pin hammer. You become numb.”

Rosenquist does not glorify popular culture, but he recognizes its power and uses its strategies in service of his own personal messages. Although he uses the powerful methods of advertising, he subverts and confounds its purpose. Instead of getting a clear message—“Buy this!”—we are forced to search for meaning within the juxtapositions of fragmented parts.

The isolated body part is a recurring motif in Rosenquist’s works. This strategy parallels commercial advertising where parts of women’s bodies—hands, lips, nails, eyes, hair—are used to sell products. Again, Rosenquist has used this approach to serve his own purposes. By removing images from their contexts he has subverted their original meanings and transforms them in service of his personal artistic messages.

In Vestigial Appendage (1962), a segment of an oversized Pepsi-Cola bottle cap is flanked by body fragments rendered in a softer focus. Rosenquist has coupled a highly visible commercial product with ambiguous segments of human form. The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997–98) painted 35 years later, tells a tale about the future. As curator Robert Rosenblum notes, “Rosenquist offers us another vision of how we live and how we see. As always, nature and technology clash and war and economics continue their old alliance. But the pace is faster. There’s more of everything—more products, more images, more information, and more stuff.”

View + Discuss

James Rosenquist (b. 1933)
Vestigial Appendage, 1962
Oil on canvas, with painted wood, 6 feet x 7 feet 9 1/4 inches (1 m 83 cm x 2 m 36.85 cm)
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Panza Collection
© James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

1. Rosenquist’s early training as a billboard painter continued to influence his later work as a professional artist. In what ways is this painting like a billboard? How is it different? What images in this painting do you associate with advertising? Why?

2. This work was painted in 1962. Describe contemporary advertisements for Pepsi Cola. What images would you choose to surround a current Pepsi Cola logo?

3. According to Rosenquist, “Sometimes a title sets off an idea. Sometimes an idea will bring about a title.” Consult a dictionary to find the definition for the title of this work, Vestigial Appendage. Suggest possible connections between the title of this work and what you see in the painting. How might the title that Rosenquist has given to this work relate to its meaning?

James Rosenquist (b. 1933)
The Swimmer in the Econo-Mist (Painting 2), 1997
Oil on canvas, 11 feet 5 13/16 inches x 47 feet 10 13/16 inches (3 m 50 cm x 14 m 60 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Commissioned by the Deutsche Bank in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, 2005.76
© James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

1. Describe your reaction to this work. Write a description of this painting for someone who has never seen it. Try to capture the full experience of the painting in words.

2. This painting was completed 35 years after Vestigial Appendage. Rosenquist is still using commercial imagery in his work. Describe how his painting style and use of commercial products as subject matter has changed over the years.

Art Explorations

You are a living, moving target for media messages. They come at you from everywhere. Messages emanate from your breakfast cereal, the sneakers you wear, and the backpack you carry to school. Choose a morning to count the number of media messages sent your way from the moment you wake up until you arrive at school. Were you able to keep track of how many messages you received? Where did they come from? List the ways you would need to change your life if you wanted to avoid being the target audience for advertisements.

Everyone at some time has been persuaded to buy a product because of a commercial or ad. Write about a time when a product disappointed you because it turned out to be different from how it was advertised.

View any of Rosenquist’s paintings and invent an alternate title that hints at, but does not overtly tell, your interpretation. Like Rosenquist, try using various plays on words, puns, and double meanings to form these new titles.

Additional Resources

Burns, Kate. The American Teenager: Examining Pop Culture. Greenhaven Press. 2003.

Gourley, Catherine. Media Wizards: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Media Manipulations. Twenty-First Century Books, 1999.

Petley, Julian. The Media: Impact on our Lives. New York: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2001.

Ravitch, Diane and Joseph P. Viteritti. Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.


A project of Ithaca College providing support, education, and training to help teachers prepare students to survive in a media-saturated world.

The Alliance for a Media Literate America promotes media literacy education.

The Center for Media Literacy is a nonprofit organization providing resources for media education.

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