Elbow Lake, 1977
In the mid-sixties, Rosenquist became interested in printmaking processes along with artist–friends Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Rosenquist enjoyed the experimental quality of printmaking and worked with all types: lithography, etching, aquatint, monoprints and silkscreen, sometimes blending different processes within a work. Lithography is a planographic process that depends on the mutual repulsion of grease and water. In contrast, etching, engravings and woodcuts depend on incised or carved lines. With engravings and etchings, the ink is pushed into the incised lines, and with woodcuts the ink is rolled over the lines so that the raised areas print. To make a lithograph, etching, engraving or woodcut, the artist draws the image in reverse. Each plate represents a different color. Once the image is on the plate and inked, paper is placed over the plate and put through an etching or lithography press. The print is then pulled from the plate. If the image has several colors, each color plate is inked separately and printed. The most important detail in the printing process is that the plates are registered correctly, a painstaking and time-consuming job.
32 11/16 x 73 3/4 in.
When Rosenquist first started working with printmaking, he became impatient and frustrated with the waiting times between stages, as well as the size limitations of paper and presses. However, this did not slow him down; he has produced over 175 editions over his career (1). Printmaking created an opportunity for Rosenquist to enter a new arena of exploration. The printmaking inks also opened up a door to his use of color. As he stated, “One thing about printmaking is the range and depth you can get from a single color. In lithography, cyan blue, rose (process) red, a dye yellow and black are supposed to make everything in the universe.”(2)
Rosenquist is an artist who is very involved in the preparation of his plates. He prefers working with aluminum plates versus lithographic stones because it is difficult to find stones large enough to accommodate the size work that he prefers. He also thinks they are too heavy as compared to aluminum plates.
Rosenquist has enjoyed working collaboratively within the different printmaking shops that he has used over his career. The high-energy working environment in a print shop creates a synergy of intellectual activity and leads to unpredictable creativity (3). His interest in printmaking has prompted him to experiment with the different processes and to create some techniques that the shops have not tried. His use of the airbrush for aquatints was one of those experiments. His preferred tools are the airbrush and stencils (4).
In 1962 Jasper Johns spoke to Rosenquist about Tatyana Grosman, a Russian immigrant who had started United Limited Art Editions, Inc. (ULAE) with a lithographic press in a small cottage in West Islip, Long Island. United Limited Art Editions, with Tatyana at the helm, created a renaissance of interest in American printmaking. Rosenquist was not initially interested in the prints that he saw around him, which were often small, and used black or brown ink on white paper. It was not until he saw Jasper Johns’s False Start, 30”x22”, a large colorful lithograph printed at ULAE at a large print show in Paris in 1964 that he realized that he, too, might produce his images on a grand scale using printmaking techniques. As soon as Rosenquist got back from Paris, he asked Johns take him to ULAE, where Tatyana gave Rosenquist a litho stone and said “There you are.” Rosenquist started drawing his ubiquitous spaghetti with a litho crayon and paintbrush. He hated all the variables involved in lithography such as the grease, the temperature, and the acidity of the water (5). With experimentation, Rosenquist realized that he could use an airbrush, which became his main tool for working with printmaking processes.
ULAE has been an important print shop for Rosenquist throughout his career. His earliest prints and some of his more recent ones have been published there. Rosenquist has also worked with Graphic studio at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa; Gemini G.E.I. in Los Angeles; Tyler Graphics in Bedford and then in Mount Kisco, New York; and Topaz Editions, Inc., in Tampa (6).
When starting a new work, Rosenquist creates source collages by using cutouts from magazines or photographs. He chooses images that he considers uniquely American; i.e., hot dogs, cars, tires, angle food cake, fragmented representations of anonymous and famous people, all kinds of consumer and computer products, and scientific instruments. We might think that these items are randomly placed in his prints, but they are carefully chosen for their personal meanings and connotations. He continues to save and recycle clippings that strike his fancy. Rosenquist uses these source collages as planning tools for new work. He builds his collages before painting or printing, superimposing grid lines over the collages so he can proportionally enlarge the work onto a canvas or plate. By scaling up, Rosenquist can translate the small collages into the large canvases for which he is known (7). When Rosenquist works on a print, he tapes his original drawing or collage to his chest, and using a mirror in his left hand he will draw or airbrush his image onto a plate (8).
Rosenquist uses a compilation of juxtaposed images in his work. His visual metaphors are hard to read: they are often fragmented, disjointed, crossed and dependent on what he is thinking about at any given moment. Some of Rosenquist’s favorite images are tire treads; sunglasses; paperclips; the Mobile Gas station emblem;, the American flag; pails; Benday Dots;, and geometric shapes such as triangles, circles, and squares. In his work of the early seventies, Rosenquist used a distinct horizontal format and a tripartite composition incorporating the simple geometric shapes.
Rosenquist’s geometric shapes have been related to nineteenth-century Japanese artist and philosopher Gibon Sengei, whom Rosenquist studied after a serious family car accident and subsequent divorce. Sengei’s premise is that the “picture of the universe is reduced to a circle, square and triangle image. . . .The Zen master uses the circle to represent infinity as the formless basis of all beings; the triangle is the beginning of all forms and the square is the triangle doubled in a doubling process whose infinite unfolding gives us the multiplicity of the forms that comprise the universe.” Rosenquist first used these geometric shapes in his painting Continental Divide of 1973 (9). His 1977 print Elbow Lake also incorporates geometric elements.
Elbow Lake is a thirteen-color lithograph made from aluminum plates and printed on 320 g/m2 rolled white Arches Cover. The image is 36 ¾”x 74”. Topaz Edition, Inc. and Aripeko Ltd. (Rosenquist’s own studio’s name) printed Elbow Lake. Julio Juristo, a Tamarind master printer and owner of Topaz Edition, Inc., printed Elbow Lake on a Griffin motorized press with a 38”x 90” bed. He printed an edition of 100; in addition, there are fourteen artist’s proofs, one BAT (bon à tirer, “ready for the press”), two printer proofs, three workshop proofs and four trial proofs. Rosenquist signed his name in pencil in the lower-right corner. He numbered the prints in pencil also; the numbers are on the lower left. The chop mark of Aripeko, a royal flush, is located on the lower right, and the edition was published by Sidney Singer (10).
Rosenquist used geometric shapes and imagery in Elbow Lake to reflect the personal upheaval in his life and his attempt to regain his equilibrium (11). The circular tire treads are representative of two things: the car crash and travel. All his life, Rosenquist has done an incredible amount of travel. He did even more after the car crash to get out of debt and to work on publishing his artwork. As in Continental Divide, the water element represents home: Minnesota. The blue organic shape in Elbow Lake represents water; more specifically, it stands for the real Elbow Lake in Minnesota where he visited as a child. The water image also symbolizes water flowing to the east, a direction Rosenquist followed when he traveled from the Midwest to New York as a young man. The lake image also appears in Hot Lake, 1978, and Iris Lake, 1974.
The circular pail, a household item, made of the Benday Dots, also refers to the upheaval in his home life (12). The pail icon is also included in Echo Pale, 1975, and Star Travel Weather Vane, 1977. Elbow Lake was made in 1977, just after he published a body of work to commemorate the bicentennial. The triangularly shaped American flag is an element found in many of his pieces. Enclosed in the flag is a copy of the Wall Street Journal; an image that alludes to his financial state. Of his prints made in the late 1970s, Rosenquist states, “If you don’t know what I am doing you can always say it is a self portrait. “ (13)
Although Rosenquist spent much of the 1970s preoccupied with prints, he also continued to produce paintings, including his famous Paper Clip, inspired by his anxiety following his family’s devastating car wreck. While his wife and son were in the hospital recuperating in Florida, Rosenquist traveled back and forth from New York on a regular basis. Deciding to find a place to live in the Tampa area, he had a residence and studio built in Aripeka, Florida, and by the end of the seventies, he had permanently settled there.
In 1993 a storm and subsequent flood destroyed much of the work and many of the records Rosenquist kept in his Florida studio. Despite this setback, he had a very productive decade. From 1992–93, he worked on the Gift Wrapped Dolls series. As an apparent reaction to the spread of AIDS, the artist depicted what look like dolls wrapped in colored cellophane gift-wrap. In addition to this series, a few years later Rosenquist began speaking with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation about a mural-sized commission that they called, “an updated version of F-111.” In 1998, the so-called refurbished F-111, entitled The Swimmer in Econo-mist, was exhibited at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin. This three-part painting details the tumult of our present world, including the economy, industry and the wars of the twentieth century. It also borrows images from the original F-111 and from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
At seventy-five, James Rosenquist remains an active and important artist. He is an inspiration, not only to the art world, but also to the world of politics on an international level. This artist’s talent and intelligence has brought joy and insight to countless art lovers all over the world. The work of James Rosenquist will continue to inspire new generations for years to come.
(1) Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003).
(5) Constance W. Glenn, Time Dust, James Rosenquist: Complete Graphics, 1962-1992, exh. cat. (New York: Rizzoli, 1993).
(6) Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003).
(9) Ruth E. Fine and Mary L. Corlett, Graphicstudio: Contemporary Art from the Collaborative Workshop at the University of South Florida, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991).