Strawberry Sunglasses

 

by Melissa D’Amico

Strawberry Sunglasses, 1974, is intriguing because it shows a new development in Rosenquist’s art. At the same time, its imagery derives from previous works of the artist and has meaning in the context of his life. In this discussion, a formalist and iconographical analysis will be applied to Strawberry Sunglasses.

Visually, Strawberry Sunglasses is compelling. The large-sized horizontal print presents a triptych-like composition containing geometric shapes.  A monochromatic white background projects three images that visually seem to break out of the picture plane.  The vertical line that divides the print in half presents another challenge to the viewer as he/she tries to interpret the three-image composition.

Strawberry Sunglasses
1974
18 Color Lithograph
36.5 x 74 1/8 in.

Starting at the left of Strawberry Sunglasses, one is initially amused by a spectrum of  vibrant colors that are printed horizontally in the image of tire treads.  The colors rise from the bottom edge of the work to the top, creating a vertically colored spectrum. This is a reminder of Rosenquist’s friend Ellsworth Kelly, who also shared an  interest in painting spectrums of colors (1).  Loking closely, one can identify an outline of a square in the middle of the column of colors.  Each edge of the square is a different color.  As one’s eye moves to the center of the composition, what appears to be a photograph of a left lens from a pair of sunglasses is recognizable.  Inside the lens, a triangle with a hanger hook, or a dinner triangle, is outlined in white to create the effect of emergence from the lens.  The string that the hanger hook holds further supports this notion. In the third image on the right, which the inner part of the left lens signals, a circular shape is represented.  It suggests concentric circles because a circular cut crumpled paper is surrounded by a red circular tire print. This imagery will be further discussed in the iconographical analysis below in relation to other works of the artist as well as to events in Rosenquist’s life.

Since eighteen different colors are printed in Strawberry Sunglasses, eighteen different stones or aluminum plates were used.  This supports the idea that Rosenquist was experimenting with technological printmaking using large-sized prints.  Rosenquist became heavily involved in using technology in his art productions of the 1970s and sometimes collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg (2).

Around the time of Strawberry Sunglasses’ printingin 1974,  Rosenquist was traveling back and forth from New York to Tampa, where his family lived.  It is possible that the lithograph reflects his travels because the tire prints are a reminder of the city, and the sunglasses are a reminder of the beach, or vacation.  However, these images also serve as symbols with other meanings within Rosenquist’s life.

Strawberry Sunglasses derives from a long history in Rosenquist’s art of using imagery of everyday objects or shapes with which all viewers can identify.  An art historian can recognize his works due to the repetition of imagery.  This is the concept of iconography, or the consideration of subject matter and the stories it tells. The intrinsic value of Strawberry Sunglasses can be gleaned by taking into account the time the work was produced and its interpretation within the context of Rosenquist’s other art productions (3).

The implied presence of an automobile is consistent throughout Rosenquist’s oeuvre.  Often, he would incorporate tire prints into his art.  This may derive from the influence of John Cage or Robert Rauschenberg’s Japanese scroll-like work, Automobile Tire Print of 1951 (4).
This was the beginning of Rauschenberg’s use of tire impressions, and because he and Rosenquist were friends, it is likely Rosenquist picked up the imagery that way.  His use of wheels is also based on a fascination with Marcel Duchamp and his readymades, which sparked an interest among Pop artists.  For example, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913 was a source of inspiration for Rauschenberg and Cage.  Rosenquist also shows the influence of Duchamp and Rauschenberg because of his interest in removing an object from its normal functional context. However, Rosenquist also had his own personal reasons for using tire prints. Before and after a tragic car accident involving Rosenquist, his wife, and their son in 1971, the artist often used car-related imagery in his art (5).  Other prints by Rosenquist around this time also held associations with cars.  For example, Rosenquist’s Tide and Miles of 1975  depict a circular tire track at the focal point of the composition.  Later in 1977, he used automobile tire tracks even more frequently, which can be identified in Violent Turn. 

The left lens of a pair of Sunglasses, which gives the print its title, is another of Rosenquist’s duplicated images. In 1974, the year of Strawberry Sunglasses, he created a variety of prints that also had sunglasses, whether a lens or an actual pair.  One-half  Sunglasses, Landing Net, Triangle and the sculpture Paper Clip are all examples. In addition to their connection with Rosenquist’s travels between New York and Tampa, the sunglasses perhaps have another association. Rosenquist was experiencing marital problems and eventually separated from his wife in 1975 (6).   Since Strawberry Sunglasses was printed in 1974, it is possible that he was reflecting on his unhappy marriage.  The triangular hanger in the lens also supports this concept because of the idea that the artist was trying to hold onto his marriage.

A characteristic of Rosenquist’s work of the 1970s is that he included images of hanging triangular objects.  Sometimes a string would be attached.  In Strawberry Sunglasses,  a little blue string hangs from the hook of the hanger.  The string hangs outside of the lens to make it easily noticable. On the other hand, hanging objects have often been attributed to other contemporary artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Eva Hesse.  It is possible that Rosenquist was influenced by their works of art.  Other prints of Rosenquist that include hanging objects are Paper Clip of 1974 and Violent Turn of 1977.  The hanging string and the arrow-like edge of the lens leads the eye to view the last object in the composition.

A circular, printed tire track in red circumscribes this last obejct, an inner circle of a silver crumpled paper.  It is transfer-paper and creates the illusion of a rough and edgy texture.  This interest in texture was something Rosenquist chose to incorporate in his prints.  For example, 1973’s Off the Continental Divide derives from his first experimentation with transfer-paper in A Pale Angel’s Halo of the same year (7).  Rosenquist also continued to use this material in later works, such as Derrière L’Etoile of 1977 and  Alphabet Avalanche of 1979.  The implied texture of the transfer paper might also be affiliated with the rough and bumpy edges of his marriage and his recovery period after the car accident in 1971.  When one walks away from Strawberry Sunglasses, one can conclude that the artist favored exploration and that the print suggests an indirect self-portrait.

The stylistic approach, technique, and the replication of objects in Strawberry Sunglasses reveal the interests of James Rosenquist.The title of the work itself invites participation based on the the viewer’s prior knowledge of and identification with strawberries and/or sunglasses.  The viewer is to interpret this lithograph print in his/her own way.  However, the artist shares his interpretation of Strawberry Sunglasses.  Rosenquist presents his life, his troubles, and his evolution in art within the print. This large work of art with vibrant colors is unique compared to the work of other contemporary artists. Strawberry Sunglasses derives from the history of Rosenquist’s exploration of  form in art, his significant life events, and his collaboration with artist friends.
(1) Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 261.
(2) Calvin Tomkins, Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), pp. 175-77.
(3) Laurie Schneider Adams, The Methodologies in Art: An Introduction (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), p. 37.
(4) Mary Lynn Kotz, Robert Rauschenberg,: Art and Life (New York: Harry Abrams, 1990), pp. 72-73.
(5) Constance W. Glenn, Timedust, James Rosenquist: Complete Graphics: 1962-1992, exh. cat. (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), p. 68.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid., p. 56.


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