The landscape in North Dakota is the sky—the stars at night, the clouds in the daytime. At night I thought about the stars and light-years and the speed of light and everything that was sort of inexplicable.
— James Rosenquist, Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art
With the installation of The North Dakota Mural at Plains Art Museum in 2010, James Rosenquist returned to his home state in a big way. Drawing on his childhood memories of the Great Plains, he created a work that speaks to the wide open spaces, huge vistas, and ocean-like skies of the region. Using his signature style of mixing different images together at varied scales, he invites us to contemplate how nature, society, culture, agriculture, industry, and history relate to each other in this particular place. The heavens of stars, nebulae, and galaxies depicted in the upper half of the painting make us ponder our place in the universe as much as our location on planet Earth.
The North Dakota Mural was commissioned by Plains Art Museum as part of a major capital campaign. Many in the local arts community have worked toward this long-standing dream of acquiring a major work by this important artist and local son. Plains Art Museum thanks James Rosenquist for his in-kind donation of creative work and an anonymous donor who supported the commissioning of this artwork. Additional thanks go to the National Endowment for the Arts and an anonymous donor for supporting installation costs.
From the Midwest to the International Art World
James Rosenquist is one of the most esteemed artists of his generation. Beginning in the mid-1960s, he was at the center of the New York art world and participated in the emergence of the art movement that came to be called “Pop art.” Along with artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Tom Wesselmann, Rosenquist employed images from popular culture. Departing from the abstract work of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, these artists made images of Hollywood movies, movie stars, advertising, comic books, and everyday products. A remarkably productive group, they continued to create important work for decades, and generations of younger artists have followed their lead in adopting and addressing the ubiquitous impact of popular culture in our lives.
Born in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Rosenquist spent his childhood in North Dakota and Minnesota. His mother, Ruth Hendrickson Rosenquist, was an amateur painter and aviator who flew the mail between Grand Forks and Winnipeg as one of first female pilots in North Dakota. His father, Louis Rosenquist, also worked in aviation, eventually becoming the head mechanic for Northwest Airlines and Braniff Airways. They may have inspired their son’s imaginative love of planes, space travel, and outer space.
As an adolescent, Rosenquist took classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. After studying art at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis from 1952-54, Rosenquist headed for New York City to study at the Art Students League and to seek his fortune in the lively art world of that period. Having worked earlier as a billboard painter in Minnesota and North Dakota, he got into the trade in New York City to support himself.
In 1960, he began painting large canvases, adopting the scale and imagery of commercial billboards. Rosenquist selected fragments from disparate images and collaged them together to create works of ambiguity and intrigue. His dream-like tableaus combine assortments of objects, food, bodies, machinery, celestial expanses of stars, and more, creating equations of images that add up to be more than the sum of their parts. His suggestive paintings are imbued with an open-endedness that generates multiple responses and interpretations.
Over five decades, Rosenquist has forged a high profile career as one of America’s pre-eminent artists. He has had more than fifteen major retrospectives, including two at the Whitney Museum of American Art and four at the Guggenheim Museum. His work has been included in hundreds of exhibitions around the world and is held in collections of the Museum of Modern Art; the Metropolitan Museum; the Guggenheim Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany; and others around the world as well as in many prestigious private collections. He has received numerous awards and honors, including service on the National Council on the Arts from 1978 to 1983; honorary doctorates from North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota; The Order of Salvador Dali Award from the Salvador Dali Museum; the Chevalier L’Ordre Des Arts and Des Lettres from the Cultural Ministry of France; and the FCS Art Award from Spain.
Even after moving to New York and then to Florida, where he still lives and works, Rosenquist has maintained ties to North Dakota and Minnesota. From his youth, he was close with John Bennett (nicknamed “Jack”), whose parents, John and Thelma, were best friends with Ruth and Louis Rosenquist. James and John enjoyed many childhood times together and have remained closely connected. John Bennett and his wife, Mavis, are longtime residents of Fargo and friends of Plains Art Museum. This selection of photographs—and an early watercolor by Rosenquist of John Bennett as a boy—provide a glimpse into Rosenquist’s early life in North Dakota and Minnesota as well as document his emergence in the New York art scene of the 1960s. In 1979, he appeared at the opening of James Rosenquist: Seven Paintings, organized by Plains Art Museum at its former location in Moorhead. James Rosenquist passed away March 31, 2017 in New York City. He was 83 years old.
James Rosenquist, The North Dakota Mural, 2010, oil on canvas, 13 x 24 ft., © James Rosenquist. Gift of the artist and an anonymous donor in honor of Dr. Jovan Brkic, a world renowned scholar of philosophy; gentleman, and friend.