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James Rosenquist, painter of unnerving large-scale masterworks, dies at 83

James Rosenquist with his artwork “Brazil” in 2005. (Wolfgang Weihs/European Pressphoto Agency)

James Rosenquist, who adapted methods he learned as a billboard painter to create artworks of a monumental scale that made him one of the most important figures in the pop art movement, died March 31 at his home in New York City. He was 83.

His death was announced on his website. The cause was not disclosed.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Mr. Rosenquist began to make gigantic paintings that blended everyday elements of American life — images from television, bullet-shaped tubes of lipstick, food, automobiles — in ways that seemed simultaneously familiar and unnerving.

Critics were often perplexed, and Mr. Rosenquist somewhat uncomfortably took a place in the emerging pop art movement, becoming as New Yorker magazine critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in 2003, "one of the big three masters of American Pop painting, with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein."

An aspiring abstract painter in his youth, Mr. Rosenquist worked for years as a commercial artist, often perched on scaffolding hundreds of feet in the air. He became skilled at painting mammoth images of food, whiskey bottles and movie stars — including a 58-foot-tall portrait of actress Joanne Woodward for the 1960 film "The Fugitive Kind."

By the early 1960s, he incorporated his billboard technique into large mural paintings that juxtaposed familiar images — a portrait of President John F. Kennedy, say, with automobiles, food, flowers or industrial equipment — to create a visual medley reflecting modern American life.

When he had his first one-man show in 1962, every painting was sold. He titled one of his works "Marilyn Monroe," soon after the actress's death in 1962, using inverted images of her smile and eyes, as well as a shadowy Coca-Cola script.

Yet Mr. Rosenquist often disavowed a connection to the pop art sensibilities of Warhol, who made multiple images of Monroe, and Lichtenstein, who made large-scale images inspired by comic books.

“I was never concerned with logos or brand names or movie stars, like Andy, for instance,” he wrote in a 2009 autobiography, “Painting Below Zero.” “Unlike Roy, I wasn’t interested in ironic simulations of pop media; I wanted to make mysterious pictures.”

In 1964, Mr. Rosenquist created "F-111," a gigantic work now considered a 20th-century masterpiece. The painting, made in 51 panels, used aluminum, canvas and a jumbled assortment of images — lightbulbs, a car tire, a girl sitting beneath a helmetlike hair dryer, a hot-pink atomic mushroom cloud, bubbles from a scuba diver and a teeming mass of canned spaghetti.

Behind the tableau lurked the F-111, a controversial fighter-bomber then under development, stretching from one end to the other. At 86 feet in length, Mr. Rosenquist’s painting was about 14 feet longer than the actual F-111.

With its overwhelming scale and surreal blend of visual symbols, Mr. Rosenquist's work made an immediate impression, although not always a favorable one. New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer pronounced it "irredeemably superficial," writing that the painting left a viewer "feeling as if he ought to be sucking on a Popsicle."

Others, however, recognized "F-111" as a major work, whose strength seems to have grown with the passing years. With its implied criticism of military might, it was hailed by some as a Vietnam-era counterpart to Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," painted in 1937 as a response to the Spanish Civil War.

“A viewer is at once seduced and assaulted at every point, with every glance,” Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker. “With terrific poise and mighty rhythm, ‘F-111’ . . . distills the excess of America in the sixties. . . . To have created it should assure Rosenquist the permanent gratitude of a bedevilled nation.”

James Albert Rosenquist was born Nov. 29, 1933, in Grand Forks, N.D. His parents were amateur pilots, and the family moved around the Midwest as his father worked variously as a mechanic, gas station owner and luncheonette operator.

Mr. Rosenquist graduated from high school in Minneapolis and began working in his late teens as an itinerant sign painter, working on crews throughout the Upper Midwest. He attended the University of Minnesota before moving to New York in 1955 to study at the Art Students League.

He worked as a chauffeur and butler before returning to his earlier job painting billboards.

“I was painting Schenley whiskey bottles on every candy store in Brooklyn,” Mr. Rosenquist told Vanity Fair in 2003. “One day, after painting about 50 bottles, I got tired of filling in the label, which was supposed to say, ‘This spirit is made from the finest grains,’ in script. Instead, I started to write, ‘Mary had a little lamb, her fleece was white as snow.’ ”

It proved to be a turning point in his career.

“That’s when Pop art occurred to me,” he said. “How can I use this method to show the emptiness and numbness of all this? I wondered how I could make a mysterious painting in which I painted huge realistic fragments of things.”

His early works, such as "I Loved You With My Ford" (1961), "Hey! Let's Go for a Ride" (1961) and "President Elect" (1960-64), established the ideas and techniques that he used for many years. Like his friend Robert Rauschenberg, Mr. Rosenquist sometimes attached objects to his canvases or attempted sculpture, but the results seldom matched the impact of his paintings.

After years in Manhattan and later on Long Island, Mr. Rosenquist moved his primary studio in 1976 to Aripeka, Fla., a small community on the Gulf Coast. In the 1980s, he often painted huge images of flowers, often with a human eye peeking through the foliage.

By the 21st century, he often embellished his paintings with a shimmery, bursting abstract quality.

His works are now held in major museums around the world and have been shown in frequent retrospective exhibitions.

His first marriage, to Mary Lou Adams, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1987, Mimi Thompson; a son from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage; and a grandson.

In 2009, a fire destroyed Mr. Rosenquist’s Florida studio, including his archives and many works of art. He seemed to take it in stride and soon returned to creating new paintings.

“When things become peculiar, frustrating and strange,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I think it’s a good time to start painting.”

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