James Rosenquist Pops Back with a Big Picture, a Big Show and a Big, Multimillion-Dollar Sale

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

As the world's richest art patrons and corporate grandees took their seats in Sotheby's New York City auction house, they formed a force field radiating wealth and power. In their midst James Rosenquist, a mere artist, seemed a bit out of place. But he listened as intently as anyone when the late Robert Scull's legendary collection of art from the 1960s went on the block. Soon he heard his own F-111 painting draw an opening bid of $350,000. Within 50 seconds the Whitney Museum had offered $1.1 million, and a mere 25 seconds later a Citibank officer acting for an anonymous buyer made the winning bid: $1.9 million, or $2,090,000 with commission. Rosenquist, who remembers how grateful he was to sell the work for $22,500 back in 1965, had just seen F-111 become the second-most-expensive painting by any living artist. That night he drank champagne until 3 a.m. "I was in a daze," he says. "I was too excited to go home."

Rosenquist, 53, wasn't celebrating any personal windfall. Scull's heirs will get the profits from F-111 and two other Rosenquists that went for $121,000 and $242,000. But the sale gave him a more lasting thrill. It marked the zenith of what has been the greatest comeback for an artist in years.

Of all the painters whose work was loosely dubbed Pop Art in the '60s, Rosenquist always had the most trouble pleasing critics and collectors. His huge oils oddly juxtaposed familiar images—a red fingernail with machine gears—and seemed annoyingly hard to understand. Cohorts such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, whose Out the Window went for a record $3.6 million during the Scull auction, sold paintings for six figures, but Rosenquist rarely drew such prices. Because he painted oil tanks in the Midwest and billboards in Times Square when he was starting out, many critics refused to take him seriously.

All that began to change dramatically last year, when the Denver Art Museum gathered 45 of his works for a touring retrospective. ART news, having once sneered at Rosenquist's style as an "ambivalent parody of billboard," now declared that his work "proves that Pop is still alive and well." The most riveting entry in the show, which is now at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., was and is F-111. With an antiwar message reminiscent of Picasso's Guernica, F-111 wraps around an entire room and mixes mundane images—a girl under a hair dryer, a tire—with a speeding F-111 fighter plane. Now hard cash has certified Rosenquist's standing. "He's been anointed because of the F-111 sale," says his friend, art dealer Richard Feigen. "We've already had people here from Toledo looking for Rosenquists."

As a boy, Rosenquist created his first works on the back of wallpaper rolls bought for him by his parents, who continually switched jobs and locales around the Midwest. Later, while at the University of Minnesota, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York. Rosenquist began to paint abstract designs, borrowing the bright colors he used on his billboard jobs, then switched to painting billboard images. "Instead of an abstract sea-foam green, I painted the 1950 Chevrolet that came in that color," he explains. "The commercial images didn't have value to me except for color." Though he always hated the term Pop Art because it implied an easy popularity, he liked the Pop crowd and regularly went to parties with them in the '60s. He abruptly retired from that scene in 1971 when a hit-and-run driver smashed into his car. Rosenquist had minor injuries, but his wife, Mary Lou, from whom he is now divorced, went into a four-month coma and his son, John, then 6, was unconscious for five weeks. With only $4,000 from insurance, Rosenquist went $60,000 in debt, Then an ill-fated one-man show at the Whitney hurt his career. "The reviews dealt with the demise of Pop Art," recalls Denver Art Museum curator Dianne Vanderlip, "and he was the whipping boy."

It didn't help that collectors began paying bigger prices for his old works while he received little for his new ones. Angered, Rosenquist launched a campaign he is still waging to get royalties for artists any time their work is sold. His financial plight became less desperate, however, in the late '70s, when collectors slowly began spending more for the paintings he was creating in his hangar-size studio in Aripeka, Fla. His personal life recently picked up, too. He is now engaged to painter Mimi Thompson, 32.

"This isn't like winning the lottery," says Rosenquist of his belated success. "It comes from a lot of hard, hard work." He remembers the old days all too well. Only five years ago, a major commission for the Miami Airport was canceled because Eastern Airlines President Frank Borman disliked his work. But Rosenquist's luck was changing: He sold the painting privately for some $285,000. "I can handle ups and downs," he says, "but to have my career get boring and uninteresting as I get old, that was scary as hell to me." With his reputation now soaring higher than an F-111, he doesn't have to be scared any longer.

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