On James Rosenquist's death: The kind of artist universities need
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With the passing of James Rosenquist last week, art lovers across the globe have lost a creative giant and a visionary force.

The first time I spoke with Jim Rosenquist, in 2011, he reiterated his vow never to return to the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, where I serve as president.. He was still fuming over the threatened closure of the museum and deaccession of major works, his among them. Indeed, he had cancelled his exhibition at the Rose planned for September of 2010.

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The second time I spoke with him, later in 2011 after the controversy was fully resolved, he generously agreed to lend his name and imprimatur to our re-opening. His attendance, and his conversation with Adam Weinberg, Brandeis alumnus and director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, marked in the most compelling way the sustaining power of art to provoke, to challenge, and ultimately to redeem.

 

Rosenquist’s connection with the Rose Art Museum goes back to the very beginning of the museum’s collection.

The Rose’s inaugural director, Sam Hunter, was staked to an acquisition budget of $50,000 with the stipulation that no individual work could be purchased for more than $5,000. These sums were certainly worth more half a century ago than they are today, but even so, they were sufficiently small that acquisitions required a keen eye, a finely-honed judgment, a close working relationship with the emerging generation of young artists, and a taste for risk-taking.

Rosenquist’s extraordinary “Two 1959 People” joined iconic works by Andy Warhol (“Saturday Disaster”), Roy Lichtenstein (“Forget It! Forget Me!”), Ellsworth Kelly (“Blue White”), Jasper Johns (“Drawer”) and Willem de Kooning (“Untitled”), among others, on the walls of our unique university gallery. These works inspired generations of students, many of whom became significant figures in America’s art world.

“Two 1959 People” exemplified Rosenquist’s formal revolution, juxtaposing commercial images at close range to burst outward from the canvas to the viewer, implicit critiquing hegemonic post-war commercial propaganda from Madison Avenue to Hollywood.

The pointedness of the critique was unmistakable and inescapable: the license plate in “Two 1959 People,” for example, is all zero’s. As Rosenquist told Weinberg the night of the Rose re-opening, he consciously set out to be an iconoclast, moving beyond Jackson Pollock’s drip or splash paintings to create a new avant-garde. In his book “Painting Below Zero,” he wrote:

“You may not have known where you were going to go with your paintings, but the one thing you knew you weren’t going to do was splash.”

As he disclosed at the re-opening of the Rose, in front of our Brandeis trustees, faculty, alumni, students and friends, he wanted to make a “mystery out of the most banal materials.”

Rosenquist’s art was ideal for a university-based art museum. He took his art seriously without taking himself seriously. His work was profound but he resisted the pomposity that sometimes accompanies art criticism. His symbolic materials embraced sources accessible to all, in combinations and presentations that were surprising, even shocking, but always challenging and exciting.

When Jim Rosenquist returned to the Rose in the fall of 2011, he exemplified and personified the ability of art to transcend challenging circumstances and to stand as an emblem of the infinite potential of human creativity. Today, when funding for the arts and humanities is threatened and when the nation is forced to confront the depth of our support for the arts, Rosenquist’s vision should serve as an inspiration. The finest memorial to his artistic legacy will be our commitment to the kind of work to which he dedicated his life. 

Frederick M. Lawrence is the Secretary/CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and is the former president of Brandeis University. He is also a senior research scholar at Yale Law School.


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