Artist Comparison: James Rosenquist and Jenny Holzer
Between the years of 1957 and 1960, artist James Rosenquist could have been spotted high above 47th Street in New York’s Times Square, busily painting a Coca Cola or Join The Navy! billboard sign. Several years later, in 1982, text based artist Jenny Holzer would also contribute to the plethora of Times Square signage by lighting up a large spectracolor signboard with a series of subversive statements from her “Truisms” series. Both Rosenquist and Holzer use the power of advertisement in their work and understand its implications on the viewing public. The striking impact of form, layout, and execution produced on a grand scale are common themes throughout both their work and unite these artists aesthetically. In this paper I will take a closer look at these similarities while highlighting some of Rosenquist’s and Holzer’s differences in an attempt to view their work critically and incite some of my own artistic strategies in response to their art.
In 1962, James Rosenquist held his first solo show at the Green Gallery in NY, an event that would seal his fate as a Pop-Art icon, joining the ranks of fellow pop contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. Like Warhol, Rosenquist had a history working in commercial art, specifically billboard art and sign painting. Rosenquist spent most of his early years in Minneapolis, and while attending the University of Minnesota, took a summer job painting signs on grain elevators, storage bins, and Phillips 66 gasoline tanks. He eventually joined the sign painters’ union in Minneapolis and began painting large billboards in the area. In 1955 he moved to New York to attend the Art Students League, and soon after joined a NY sign painters’ union, who employed him to paint large billboard advertisements, most notably in Times Square.
In 2008, while speaking at the lecture series titled, The Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, Rosenquist posits that it was this experience of painting large shapes and colors while standing at a close proximity to the pictorial plane that first influenced his studio work. A billboard painter has a very different view of the advertisement than the viewer thirty feet below on street level, and it is this experience that Rosenquist became fascinated with. What looks like a car hood from the street, may look like an abstract color field painting if viewed from a distance of two feet. The paintings that Rosenquist began to produce around this period, most notably his I Love You with My Ford from 1961, Marilyn Monroe, I from 1962, and F-111 from 1964, exhibit fragmented imagery, detailed shape, and vibrant color which transport the viewer to the vantage point of a billboard artist contemplating the massive image in front of him. In the lecture, Rosenquist also comments that the size of his work is meant to play with the viewer’s focus and peripheral. As one focuses on different areas of the painting, new ideas and experiences emerge. I could imagine walking alongside a work like F-111, which is 86 ft. long by 10 ft. tall, and having a completely new and different experience with the painting towards the end of my walk as opposed to the beginning. The viewer is visually surrounded and becomes enveloped by Rosenquist’s paintings.
This idea of art submerging the viewer is something that becomes quite literal in the work of Jenny Holzer, a Neo-Conceptual artist who has become known for her massive projections of text onto the façades of landmark buildings, or the interior walls of galleries and public spaces. Holzer grew up in Ohio, and later received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1976 she moved to New York and participated in an independent study program at the Whitney Museum. There, she began experimenting with texts and developed a list of short phrases she called “Truisms”. Around 1978 she was printing these messages onto pieces of paper that she would then wheat-paste onto to telephone poles, mail boxes, signs, etc. According to a biography of the artist in Art History Archive, Holzer liked the idea that the public could interact with her writings, and that often her wheat-pasted papers would provoke response in the form of graffiti and other commentary. In 1982, supported by the Public Arts Fund in NY, she was given the opportunity to display nine of her “Truisms” on the giant Spectracolor lightboard located at One Times Square. One of the more famous “Truisms” on display read, “Protect Me From What I Want”, a saying that has since been co-opted by today’s consumer society in a fashion similar to Barbara Kruger’s “I Shop Therefore I Am”.
Through the rest of the 80’s and into the 90’s Holzer embraced the advancing technology of image projection and LED sign display as her medium of choice. In 2008, using extremely powerful light projectors, she illuminated a series of texts onto the façade of the Guggenheim Museum that scrolled upward towards the sky. This work, and others that she has created like it, transformed the exterior of the building, altering not only the building itself, but also the significance of the message being projected through its exaggerated form. She also utilizes projections for interior installations. For example, her exhibit piece at the Mass MOCA titled “Projections”, invited museum goers to lie down on giant bean bags while projected text moved about the space enveloping the viewer and the bean bag as it traveled. The viewer, like the Guggenheim’s façade which is enveloped in text, becomes integral to the experience and also a part of the work itself.
Both Holzer and Rosenquist use the power of immersion to captivate and involve the viewer. To achieve this, Holzer uses massive text and light projection, while Rosenquist utilizes bold images and color along with large scale. In this way, the works of both artists’ consume the viewer, essentially working to subvert the message of advertising as used by purveyors of capitalist consumerism. Both artists seem conscious of this in their work, although Holzer is more overt in her political stance. In an interview with ART 21, she states that it is her intention to use simple text that is bold and legible; ultimately it is the message itself that is more important than the art or artist. She also states that she tries to remove herself from the work, letting the text speak truths and provoke response. This is a very different process and result than the work of Rosenquist, whose paintings become glimpses into the artist’s mind. Bright colors, sometimes abstract shapes, and fragments of objects begin to feel a bit like walking into the mind of a schizophrenic, or perhaps just a mind that is distracted, even bombarded by a plethora of imagery that exists within modern society. He does often paint political subjects (F-111 is a fantastic example) but the work appears to be equally about the man who painted it as the subject it portrays.
I have chosen to talk about these artists because different aspects of their work are relevant to my own artistic process. Having experience as a commercial sign painter for the past seven years, I can relate to the pure aesthetic pleasure that Rosenquist speaks of when creating a finely executed line in connection to a wisely crafted composition. I can also relate to Holzer when she strives to make art that is subversive, thought provoking, and engaging. I am excited to have these two artists in mind as I move forward with my own work.
Rosenquist, James. “Fine Art is Not A Career.” Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in
American Art. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Washington, D.C. 28 Nov 2007.
“Jenny Holzer.” Art 21. PBS.org. n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
“Jenny Holzer.” Art History Archive.com. n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.