James Rosenquist returns home to North Dakota

GRAND FORKS -- Born in 1933 in Grand Forks, James Rosenquist will return for his 80th birthday celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday at the North Dakota Museum of Art, where his 17-by-46-foot painting, "Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil," awaits ...

GRAND FORKS -- Born in 1933 in Grand Forks, James Rosenquist will return for his 80th birthday celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday at the North Dakota Museum of Art, where his 17-by-46-foot painting, "Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil," awaits his arrival.

Greeted by museum staff, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and first lady Betsy Dalrymple, Rosenquist will talk about his life's work. He will be joined by his wife, Mimi Thompson, and curator Judith Goldman, who will give an informal talk about Rosenquist's artwork.

Emerging with artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Rosenquist is considered by many to be one of the protagonists in the pop art movement. His work has been the subject of 15 career retrospectives, and his art has been shown in many major art museums around the world including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Fond memories

Although Rosenquist has lived in New York for the majority of his life, he still remembers his North Dakota childhood.


He recalls fond memories of fishing for sheepshead in the Red River with his grandfather Ollie Hendrickson and planting watermelon on his grandparents' farm near Mekinock.

"It was great with the watermelons because Ollie would occasionally buy a case of orange soda pop for the farm, and once we ran out, I would walk 4 miles to Mekinock to get one can of orange soda," he said.

Life was much simpler then. Rosenquist said they didn't have a phone or electricity on the farm. Even as a child, he worked odd jobs picking potatoes and shoveling wheat until his family moved to Minneapolis in 1942.

After leaving North Dakota, Rosenquist said, "I was very lucky and fell into many situations that started my art life, and it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger."


As a teenager, Rosenquist spent much of his free time drawing and painting, so his mother encouraged him to get a job doing just that. He answered an advertisement in the newspaper and got a job painting Phillips 66 gasoline signs in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

After a year, he started looking for other work. He walked into General Outdoor Advertising Co. in Minneapolis, where he saw someone creating a huge painting of macaroni for Kraft Foods.

"I go, 'I can do that,'" Rosenquist said. "And they go, 'Oh, yeah? We always can use a good man around here.'"


They asked Rosenquist to paint two heads drinking Coca-Cola at 10 feet high to test his skills.

"I didn't know how to do that that well, but I really tried," Rosenquist said. "And he said, 'I'm sorry, kid. You haven't got it.'"

Six months later, Rosenquist returned, saw the same man and again said, "I can do that." This time, when they asked him to paint two different heads drinking Coca-Cola, he nailed it. "He said, 'Not bad kid, you got a job,'" Rosenquist said.

He worked for General Outdoor Advertising until he saved enough money to leave. He sent his drawings to the Art Students League in New York and received a scholarship to study art. Rosenquist moved to New York, and his career quickly took off from there.

The open plains

Even after moving away, Rosenquist still remembered the plains of North Dakota and said they had a great influence on his artwork.

"There's many things that feel and look different on a big, open plain," he said, recalling a particular memory from his childhood in North Dakota.

"One afternoon night, I was sitting on the front porch of the farm house, and I saw a three-story horse walk by, and I go 'What the hell is that?' It turned out to be an optical illusion from the heat. The neighbor's white stallion got loose and was walking across the field."


Rosenquist was inspired by the large, open space and light in the plains of North Dakota and incorporated it into his artwork.

In New York, he continued commercial work, painting billboards in Times Square and eventually applied the large-scale technique to his studio paintings.

"I did these big paintings of fragments of realistic imagery where you could identify something as a fragment ...," Rosenquist said. "And the largest image you would recognize last because it would be so big."

Rosenquist made many collages, and if he really liked one after a couple of months, he'd paint it. He enjoyed creating mysterious paintings from his collages. He explained that collages are about combining a number of things to produce a larger idea.

"Collage is ancient," he said. "It goes way back to the Japanese tea ceremony. They used to always have three things. They'd put out a decorative tea bowl, a living flower and a painting. One is to meditate the connection between these three unusual things that brings about an idea."

Rosenquist said he remembers seeing collages in an Ohio museum during World War II. "They had a flower, a painting and a shrunken head. I thought 'Well, what the hell does that mean?'" he said. "The idea is putting these expendable items together that produce ideas."

'Needle to the Anvil'

Rosenquist used the collage concept in his painting, "Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil." He painted a pair of high heels, flowers, a needle, a skull and an anvil surrounded by black and white iridescence.


"It's about my mother, and it's about women's intuition," he said. "And it's about the idea of the eye of the needle to the anvil ... ideas start very miniscule and tiny, and they become novels, they become paintings, they become plays, they become movies."

Rosenquist said his mother was always interested in painting but never took the time to do it. In her old age, Rosenquist told her he would buy paint and canvasses, so she could finally paint.

"She said, 'No, it's too late. It's all too late,'" he said. "That was very sad to me."

When she died, he created this large painting for her, which has traveled from New York to London to Moscow. Now, it hangs in the east gallery of the North Dakota Museum of Art, where it will stay until Dec. 1.

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