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Uncovering Rosenquist's Imprint in 'Time Dust'


LONG BEACH — In the fabled '60s, art was for everybody. Artists celebrated that democratic impulse by making art out of American popular culture, its familiar billboards, bimbos, logos and soup cans. In some ways the lithographic print was the era's symbolic medium, combining artistic elitism with cultural populism.

James Rosenquist was not quite the quintessential Pop artist. Along with guys such as Tom Wesselmann and Red Grooms, he was a little too heartfelt. Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein were better at keeping the cool irony favored by the time. By now Rosenquist, who always looked good, goes down even better. A retrospective of his prints at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum reveals the deeper currents of the man and the decade.

Titled "James Rosenquist: Time Dust, Complete Graphics 1962-1992," the show was organized by museum director Constance W. Glenn. She took more than seven years on the project, finally arriving at a traveling exhibition of some 90 works launched at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center. It arrives here with her valuable 130-page catalogue raisonne, including a well-written monograph of the artist.

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1933. He seems to have inherited its tradition of clipped, somewhat dark humor. It floats over a sea of Scandinavian brooding. He cut his artistic teeth as a painter of giant billboards in New York. That's an experience that teaches many American things--the way we love grandiose scale, the way paintings look so realistic from far away, so abstract from close up.

Early prints have the usual cheery commercial surface. There are comforting items such as Kleenex, spaghetti, pop bottles and girls' smiles floating around in a fog of Yankee optimism. But there are undertones. "Hey! Let's Go for a Ride" sounds like fun, but its smoky black-and-white forms bespeak muffled agony. Limp pasta in blood-orange sauce hints at complexity and entanglements leading to exhaustion. That pretty smoke turns out be belching pollution from the stacks at Con Ed.


Rosenquist's most famous painting is probably his giant panorama "F-111." A lithographic version on view recalls its central icon, the head of a pretty little girl half hidden inside a big chrome hair dryer. It's a symbol of two things that imprison lives in this culture, a preoccupation with superficial sexuality and a reliance on destructive technology.

A lot of Pop-era prints aren't much more than lithographic versions of paintings. Rosenquist overlaps the activities, but his prints have lives of their own. He's clearly been concerned with overcoming the generically dead surfaces of ordinary lithography while growing his art at the same time.

Rewarding accomplishment shows in oversize prints such as the 1989 "The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet." In this and related works, the artist takes a simple image of a flower floating on water and turns it into a cosmic event. The thing is like a galactic trip in a Hawaiian bar, at once bargain-basement exotic and lyrically transcendent.

He gives the print some relief surface by pasting in strips of colored paper. "The Prickly Dark," for example, has that weird, floating spatial ambiguity you get from photographic contact prints or X-rays.

The finale of the show is its title piece, "Time Dust" of 1992. Glenn claims it's the largest and most complex fine art print ever made. At about 6 feet by 30 feet, it's still not as big as a commercial billboard but plenty large enough to be impressive indoors.


At once as grand as interplanetary travel and intimate as a your desktop, the work evokes satellites and space junk floating gracefully through an endless universe. One amazingly dimensional UFO is depicted as made of lipstick-colored crayons wrapped in $100 bills. Maybe it was launched from that shiny aluminum can that looks bigger than the Starship Enterprise. Maybe the docking station is that French horn the size of Uranus.

The dimensions of the print certainly dramatize its effect, but the imagery is just as important. Somehow Rosenquist's early unease has given way to a boundless acceptance of both the way things are and the way we wish they were.

* Cal State Long Beach, University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd.; Through Sept. 22. Closed Saturday and Sunday through Sept. 3, closed Mondays thereafter. (310) 985-5761.

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