Thursday, November 29, 2007

James Rosenquist at SAAM

Last month when I learned Jim Rosenquist would be lecturing at the McEvoy Auditorium in the basement of the Smithsonian American Art Museum I quietly rejoiced and then began showing students images of his work on Google.

Back story: Two years ago I was helping Barbara Rose move stuff to New York, and after a long day of working we sat chewing the fat over a bottle of wine. She asked me who I thought the five best living US painters are. I spit out Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, and Rosenquist before I could blink an eye. Then I stopped speaking and sheepishly admitted I couldn't think of any other living painter that I was passionate about. I think I followed up with , "Elizabeth Murray, I suppose. " (I know she's no longer with us... this was 2005.)

Barbara stated sharply - "Now, Jim Rosenquist. That's interesting. He has to be one of the most gentlemanly artists I have ever known." Perhaps I am paraphrasing.

The lecture Jim Rosenquist was supposed to give was entitled Fine Art Is Not A Career. I don't think he ever broached the subject. His talk was mostly war stories: growing up in the Midwest; his parents being aviators; working as a sign painter with ex-convicts in ND, SD, NE, IA, & WI painting signs for Phillips 66; a scholarship to New York; the cost of George Grosz's apartment in the 1950s; his first apartment in Coenties Slip; and the differences in price between paintings he sold in the 1960s and what they recently sold for at auction this year. Basically, things you could read in the catalog published by the Guggenheim five years ago, during his retrospective.

But, my, was he entertaining! He speaks with a voice reminiscent of a quiet Harvey Keitel. He fidgeted with his glasses, wiped his face with his hands, hiked up his trousers, lost his place in his lecture, and told little more than amusing anecdotes. He had the charm of an afternoon out with my grandfather, sitting in a boat, lines in the water, waiting for the catfish at the bottom of the river bed to come up for a bite. And he was capable of mastering that poise in front of an audience of hundreds. He's as cool as his paintings.

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