Selecting Images

Selecting Images

“If I use a lamp or a chair, that isn’t the subject… If I have three things, their relationship will be the subject matter… One thing, though, the subject matter isn’t popular images.”
    –James Rosenquist

From images of uniquely American things—hot dogs, angel food cake, cars, tire treads— Rosenquist has developed a visual language that is perfectly suited to telling tales about contemporary life. His subject matter is taken from diverse sources and includes consumer products, scientific instruments, and electronic communication devices. He has used computer keyboards and coaxial cables, typography and diagrams. And there are fragments of people, both famous and anonymous.

Though at first glance the objects that Rosenquist includes in his paintings may seem random, they are carefully chosen for attributes of personal meaning and connotation. We bring our personal associations to his work and create our own unique readings and meanings. The difficult part is learning to accept his astonishing flow of images on purely sensual, formal terms.

Rosenquist is not interested in whole objects, but in the fragments that we see all the time. “Take a walk through midtown Manhattan and you will see the back of a girl’s legs and then you see out of the corner of your eye a taxi comes close to hitting you. So—the legs, the car—you see parts of things and you rationalize and identify danger by bits and pieces. It’s very quick. It’s about contemporary life.”

View + Discuss

James Rosenquist (b. 1933)
I Love You with My Ford, 1961
Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 3/4 inches x 7 feet 9 1/2 inches (1 m 109.23 cm x 2 m 57.5 cm)
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
© James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

1. This early Rosenquist painting layers three of his signature images. Fold a piece of paper in thirds horizontally to create three sections. In each section, write down all the associations you have with each of the corresponding individual objects pictured. Are there relationships that seem to emerge? Write a paragraph describing your interpretation of this painting.

2. In this painting Rosenquist uses a technique known as grisaille that uses only gray tints to render images. How has Rosenquist used color and grisaille within this work? How would the impact of this painting change if all the images were in color? If all were grisaille?

3. Does the title I Love You with My Ford help or hinder your understanding of the image? Describe your perception of the relationship between the painting and its title.

James Rosenquist (b. 1933)
Welcome to the Water Planet, 1987
Oil on canvas, 13 x 10 feet (3 m 96.24 cm x 3 m 4.8 cm)
Private collection, on display in The Lenox Building, Atlanta
© James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

1. Over the years Rosenquist has experimented with various ways to combine images. In I Love You with My Ford images are set edge-toedge along straight lines. How are images combined in Welcome to the Water Planet? Compare these two approaches. Which do you prefer?

2. What are some differences you notice about the imagery in these two paintings? What themes does Rosenquist explore in each work? Which do you think was created earlier? Why?

Art Explorations

In Rosenquist’s work we see fragments or parts, never the entire object. A viewfinder is a simple device that can allow us to see common objects in alternative ways. To make a viewfinder cut a 1 x 1.5 inch rectangle from an index card or use an empty 35-mm slide mount. Place a commonplace object on a table. You may want to use an object similar to one found in Rosenquist’s work, or choose something entirely different. Look at the object through the viewfinder. Notice how the object can be cropped into a fragment by moving the viewfinder closer or further away from your eye. Frame various portions of the object from different points of view. Scan the object for a particularly interesting compositional or psychologically meaningful segment. Draw the image that you see in the viewfinder on a proportionally larger sheet of drawing paper (e.g., 8 x 12 inches).

Use the viewfinder in a camera in a similar way. Using a film or digital camera, create a series of ten or more photographs that examine a single object from various points of view, including close-ups, aerial views (from above) and worm’s-eye-views (from below). Like Rosenquist, look for an interesting section or fragment of the object. Review the photographs that you have made. In which photograph is the object most recognizable? Why? Which photograph is the most mysterious and transformed? Why?

From images gathered from the Internet, magazines, or newspapers, create a layered collage, similar in structure to I Love You with My Ford. Begin with an 8 x 8 inch sheet of poster board and experiment with the possibilities of juxtaposing fragments of three images. Consider both aesthetics and meaning, but try to leave some mystery in your choices. When finished, decide on a title for your work.

Try the exercise described above again, but this time invent new and unexpected ways to combine your images. You may want to borrow some strategies from Welcome to the Water Planet, including layering, perforating, and dissecting. When you are pleased with your design, use a glue stick to adhere it to the poster board and decide on a title for your work.


On View

This presentation, comprised of selected materials from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, pays homage to the first Frank Lloyd Wright–designed structures in New York City.

Works & Process

Photo: Petrus Sjövik

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