Miles (America’s Third Century), 1975

Melissa Merritt

In 1975, America was one year shy of its bicentennial. It was in this year that the United States Mint began releasing special bicentennial coinage with new designs on the reverse sides of the quarter, half-dollar, and dollar (1). The Bicentennial Kennedy half-dollar was released on July 7, 1975, and was minted with the image of Independence Hall on the reverse side, designed by Seth G. Huntington of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The front of all of the bicentennial coins remained the same (2). It was also in this year that printmaker James Rosenquist created his print Miles (America’s Third Century) which, as the title implies, tied together two themes that recurred in many of his other prints: American politics juxtaposed with pop culture, and events linked to his personal life.

Mile's (America's Third Century)
1975
8 Color Lithograph, 30 1/6 x 22 3/8 in.

Although Miles (America’s Third Century) was printed in 1975, the Kennedy half-dollar coin depicted, which is broken into slices at the center of the print, is dated 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial. As the title describes, that bicentennial year marked the beginning of a third century for the United States. The Director of the United States Mint, Mary Brookes, described the importance of the bicentennial coinage in a 1975 press release: “The Bicentennial coins mark the first time in our history that circulating coins have been re-designed in honor of an anniversary of American Independence. The silver specimens, particularly, are quality mementoes of our 200 years of freedom and I hope they will be treasured and admired long after 1976 fades into memory.” (3)

The broken slices of the Bicentennial half-dollar overlay a blue tire silkscreened in the same blue ink. The tire hangs from the top of the print, anchored by a green rope, rather than floating in the middle as the coin does. It is tied in the manner in which a tire swing would be hung from a tree. Rosenquist used this same tire, in a slightly lighter shade of blue, in 1974’s print Yellow Landing and then reused it again in his 1976 silkscreen print Artist Rights Today (Tide),  which continues the theme of a hanging tire overlaid with a visual collage of imagery. The image closely recalls the dinner triangle that Rosenquist used frequently before and after printing Miles (America’s Third Century) in 1975, and also appears on such later prints as More Points on a Bachelor’s Tie and Auto Tire, Dinner Triangle (both prints, 1977).

The smaller circle at the center of the tire and coin continues the visual pattern of round shapes. The circle is airbrushed using three colors: a dark, navy blue; a medium blue; and a pale, warm yellow, which produces an effect similar to that gained through the process of aquatint. They are arranged in that order respectively, with a white space between the medium blue and yellow hues. This effect begs the viewer to recall an atmospheric, astronomical-type image that relates to the juxtaposition of night and day. This circle is the only airbrushed element in the print, whereas all of the other eight colors are applied with the use of silkscreen. For Rosenquist, airbrush brought an element of experimentation to printmaking that defined his interest in the medium. He described his process as follows:

            “I really try to keep the number of printings to six or eight, to achieve with economy the maximum color range, to get the most out of the least. A lithograph is like a BLT sandwich; you put layers and layers together one on top of the other, and that produces its own sparkle against the white paper.” (4)

The central image of the hanging tire relates to the multicolored tire prints that fill the background of the composition. Red, yellow, teal, pink, blue, and orange tracks overlap one another, communicating a frenzied horizontal composition. The scratchy, uneven texture of the tracks echoes Rauschenberg’s 1955 Automobile Tire Print (arguably the artist’s first endeavor at printmaking), only this time the tire’s tread is broken into sections, overlaid atop one another, and transformed into a rainbow of colors. Since 1971, the year of a violent car accident involving Rosenquist, his wife, and their son, he frequently used tire tracks in his prints to add an autobiographical element to his work. Nineteen seventy-one was also the year in which Rosenquist began work at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida in Tampa (5). Rosenquist worked at various studios in the following years, but he returned to Graphicstudio in 1975 to continue with his prints on a larger scale. It was there that he subsequently printed Miles (America’s Third Century) (6). The print was editioned with the aid of Graphicstudio staff members Julio Juristo and Patrick Lindhardt (7).

The textural, collage-like imagery in the print recalls Rosenquist’s earlier oil paintings of the 1960s, which served as “a metaphor for modern and specifically urban life. . . .  Fractured imagery and discontinuous narratives were the devices Rosenquist chose in order to express an autobiographical, birds-eye and street-level view of the modern metropolis.” (8) As the artist himself stated: “Collage is a very contemporary medium, whether it’s done with little bits of paper or in the cinema. The essence of collage is to take very disparate imagery and put it together and the result becomes an idea, not so much a picture.” (9) In layering the images of tire tracks, a hanging tire, and a shattered bicentennial half-dollar coin, Rosenquist could address personal and national topics within the same print. Furthermore, his professional background as a commercial billboard artist allowed him to see the world differently, and this affected his prints. The fragmentation of images, along with the color and feeling that he experienced as a billboard painter in Times Square when he first moved to New York in the late 1950s, fed into the work of his later career. His training as a commercial artist allowed him to later translate aspects of psychology and culture into a montage of images that although seemingly disjointed, worked together compositionally. He created a visual response to elements of popular culture and was able to achieve a deeper meaning through the inclusion of personally relatable imagery.

(1) The bicentennial quarter, half-dollar, and dollar coins were minted in 1975 and 1976.
(2) “Mint Announces Release of the Bicentennial Dollar,” Department of the Treasury News Banner, Bureau of the Mint, Washington D.C., 1 October 1975, p.1. Accessed from <http://www.usmint.gov/search/index.cfm?hf=1&searchTerm=bicentennial%20half%20dollar> on 22 April 2008.
(3) “Mint Announces Release of the Bicentennial Dollar” Department of the Treasury News Banner. Bureau of the Mint. Washington D.C. 1 October 1975. P.2. Accessed from <http://www.usmint.gov/search/index.cfm?hf=1&searchTerm=bicentennial%20half%20dollar> on 22 April 2008.
(4) Ruth E. Fine, “Off the Continental Divide and Other Risky Journeys,” in Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003), p. 48.
(5) Graphicstudio was turned over exclusively to Rosenquist in the aftermath of his car accident to allow him to deal with the trauma of his wife’s and son’s injuries. This subsequently postponed Robert Rauschenberg’s first session there, which Rosenquist was instrumental in setting up.
(6) Fine, p. 51.
(7) Miles (America’s Third Century) Purchase Information. Accessed from <www.goantiques.com/catagory.prints-251.html> on 16 April 2008.
(8) Julia Blaut, “James Rosenquist: Collage and the Painting of Modern Life” in Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh. cat.(New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003), p. 17.
(9) Ibid .

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