In Focus

Interview: Rosenquist on Silo

James Rosenquist Silo 1963–4

James Rosenquist
Silo 1963–4
Oil paint on canvas, wood and Perspex
2870 x 3531 x 562 mm
Tate T01829
© James Rosenquist/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2017

In February 2006 Tate conservation staff Rachel Barker and Tom Learner interviewed James Rosenquist at his New York studio.1 At several points in their wide-ranging interview, Rosenquist grapples with the condition of Silo 1963–4 (Tate T01829; fig.1) and its relationship with the underlying image Candidatethat is increasingly visible through its field of overpainted blue. The following audio clip and transcribed excerpts from this previously unpublished interview focus on their discussions relating to the imagery of Silo and the artist’s thoughts on its changing form.

Rosenquist’s understanding of paintings as objects that are subject to the shifting conditions that they encountered in the world is evident in some of his earliest statements – and presumably before he had been forced to grapple with the conservation issues that his works presented. As he stated in 1964: ‘I have a feeling, as soon as I do something, or as I do something, nature comes along and lays some dust on it … If you do an iron sculpture, in time it becomes rusty, it gains a patina and that patina can only get to be beautiful.’2 This expectation that the passing of time would leave its traces on the materiality of an artwork, like a patina, is one that extends to his view on Silo expressed in this 2006 interview.

In other contexts Rosenquist has expressed his favour for paintings that ‘contain many layers’ in their meaning and ideas. ‘At first glimpse, it looks like that and then you look a little further and it goes, “Oh there’s something there too.” There’s more there. Any great masterpiece painting is like that. There’s subliminal values and colors there that hide things and seep out slowly.’3 Here, Rosenquist translates this preference for works that slowly disclose their content so as to demand viewing over an extended period of time to the unintentional layers now visible in Silo.

As art historian Michael Lobel has observed more generally, Rosenquist’s attitudes towards his work often evidenced a ‘refreshing lack of respect for the material sanctity of the art object’.4 This holds true of the artist’s cavalier attitude towards his painting in the interview. But such views also sit in paradoxical relation to his persistent concern over what makes ‘great masterpieces’. In his discussion of Silo, Rosenquist thus makes especially liberal reference to the likes of Michelangelo, Bernini, Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse, connections that serve to embed his own work in such a lineage. Of particular note is the artist’s memories of Willem de Kooning, a first-hand relationship of special relevance to the use of the T-zone in Silo, and one that plays an important role in Rosenquist’s art historical self-positioning.

Interview with James Rosenquist by Rachel Barker and Tom Learner, 4 February 2006

Rachel Barker: As a conservator working on the painting, I’d like to look at the whole painting as a composite of different layers. And if I could start by talking a little bit about Candidate and, as best you can remember, could you just talk through the construction of that painting? So that’s what you used as a primer, what you used as a paint…

James Rosenquist: Well, originally the idea came from cigarette advertisements on the back of Life magazine, and I think it was Chesterfield T-zone; it has this T-zone, you know, and they said, ‘Oh, this tobacco is incredible’, and all the doctors recommend this tobacco’ and everything, I thought, ‘This is totally ridiculous’. Even at that time, they were really starting in on cancer. Lung cancer and so forth. So I did this thing… this was a – how can I put it? This was a… I illuminated an advertisement for this T-zone, and the lady in the picture there is a candidate, or the box – I made a three-dimensional box covered with vinyl that was an invitation… there was a chair; I don’t know if there’s a chair in there. There used to be a chair somewhere …

Rachel Barker: In the Candidate, yeah?

James Rosenquist: In the Candidate. This is an enlarged invitation in this T-zone that’s what this was. At the time, I was also fascinated how – because I was an outdoor commercial sign painter and painted all sort of imagery in Times Square for a few years, and so I was always fascinated how, say, John F. Kennedy looked, and how he advertised himself. Also, what’s her name, the actress [Joan Crawford] who used to own most of Pepsi Cola. Anyway … how they decided to advertise themselves, and what do they want to look like. There was a Texas rock-n-roll singer, black guys, with a blind and big bow. And I painted a big pink head of his head, because he advertised himself in pink, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s funny, for a black guy to advertise himself in bright pink’. So also, all these things have to do with advertising, and people advertising themselves, or the peculiar idea of advertising cigarettes. Also cigarettes are very strange things, because when I was a little boy, even in the 1930s, I saw a movie in the theatre about the invention of cigarettes! What a wonderful product cigarettes were. And it said the floor sweepings from the tobacco companies from the cigars, making cigars; they didn’t know what to do with the floor-sweepings. So they said, ‘Aha! We’ll shred it and make this new product, cigarettes!’ And I thought, ‘Floor-sweepings? I’m gonna put those in my mouth, from the floor?’ What, are you kidding me? … I have so many friends who died from smoking. Famous people … cigarettes are peculiar, because a cigarette … is an elemental fire. Like you have a soldier shot through a couple of times, ‘Hey buddy. Here’s a cigarette for you.’ And the guy goes, ‘Oh yeah’, and it’s his little companion, this little fire …

So I don’t want to get off talking about cigarettes all the time … A lot of my ideas came from advertising because I paint huge things. Huge movie stars and huge … their eyes would be this big. And the boss would say, ‘Now look. That little highlight in her eye? She’s a star, you know. So make that a star.’ You couldn’t see that from the street, but anyway. So… and I thought ‘God I hate this’. I hate advertising… it’s a love/hate situation; it’s a capitalist economy. And the difference is, in Russia – I was in Russia in 1965 – there was no outdoor advertising, there was no colour, there was nothing. And in the United States, I grew up with supermarkets, pink toilets, pastel-coloured refrigerators, Sugar Ray Robinson’s pink Cadillac car, and all that stuff was this external ambience of colour.

Rachel Barker: Is that why you put the Day-Glo flowers under the chair in the bowl?

James Rosenquist: Probably, I don’t remember all the details. But maybe …

Rachel Barker: So what made you then decided to overpaint it? Because I saw a review in Art News by Max Kozloff that really praised Candidate as a painting. What made you decide to cover it with Silo?5

James Rosenquist: I don’t know. A silo is a building where you put corn and grain and everything, and the head, the pressure of this makes something called – it almost ferments – it’s called ‘silage’ that cows eat. And I probably was thinking about the pressure of ideas just pressing down, fermenting something, ideas or something like that, passing through my head. I really don’t know. I really can’t tell you. Now I wish I’d left the face on there. And I think you should just let this… we should take the paint off it.

Tom Learner: That’s on tape.

Rachel Barker: That’s on tape. That will be very interesting to the curators … I’ve got some close-up images that look as if the mouth in Candidate has actually bled through the Enamelac.

James Rosenquist: I love it!

Tom Learner: It does look as if it’s coming through …

James Rosenquist: It’s ghostly. I’ll have to change the title now.

Rachel Barker: [C]an I just ask why you are suggesting that we take… remove this painting Silo and have Candidate re-emerge? What is it that is making you think like that? … [This is] probably the best photo that you can see quite clearly …

James Rosenquist: Oh, I see something!

Rachel Barker: You can see the teeth and upper lip.

James Rosenquist: I think they’re amazing …

Rachel Barker: There she is, desperately trying to re-emerge.

James Rosenquist: I think that you should leave it. Let nature take its toll. In ten years, we’ll say, ‘Look at that – it’s still working’ …

Rachel Barker: It certainly does add to the mystery of the composition; that’s for sure. But it… I think there’s a possibility that, as the painting ages, this ghostly image is almost going to dominate the Silo composition, and that obviously is …

James Rosenquist: You get two for one, hey!

Rachel Barker: Yeah, well, we’re very lucky, but it’s going to have to be acknowledged curatorially.

James Rosenquist: … the mystery painting [whistles a spooky theme tune].

Rachel Barker: I mean, I think, at some stage, it will have to be acknowledged in the label that goes with the painting … [it] will have to start mentioning Candidate. Cos it’s going to start confusing people …

James Rosenquist: I think that would be fun. See, I protested the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. And, the guy had a pass – Dr Walter Persegati, have you heard of him?

Tom Learner: I haven’t, no.

James Rosenquist: He was the main restoration guy in charge. He was an old guy with a crew cut and he goes, ‘Before we let you see the ceiling, why do you protest?’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m a young artist, I just wondered why Michelangelo would give up any advantage he has, such as chiaroscuro; there was no illumination at the time. He would use colour, chiaroscuro, anything to make this great, great thing. And he goes, ‘Very well; take him away!’ So we climbed up this ladder and there were three restorers, and one said, ‘Go ahead, touch it, it’s a good fresco!’ And I said, ‘No, I won’t touch it; thank you very much, no,’ and half of it they had restored and half unrestored. And the unrestored head look like a Bernini; it had all the cartilage, the ears; it had all the drawing. It had everything, and it was pretty dark. And then they had a restored head right next to it, and it looked like a polpetta, like a pink meatball; it looked like a prize-fighter had been hurt. And I said, ‘Look. Why don’t you keep half of it restored, and half unrestored, and keep the discussion going?’ He said, ‘That’s no a bad idea!’ So…

Rachel Barker: I wonder what Michelangelo would say about that, though.

James Rosenquist: I think the big question – and you probably know much more about this – the big question was, who came in and put in all these darks? You know, the shadows. Did Michelangelo do it; did someone else do it; that was the big thing. So they had three stages of caustic soda, I think it was. They put one on, and they looked at it. And they put another one on, and then they looked at it. And they did the third one, and then they finished. They didn’t do any more. But they took off a lot. And my feeling is that they took over too much. And so now they have a colourful, flat-looking thing up there …

Tom Learner: … [I]t’s very hard talking about an artist’s intent when it’s forty years after the event, but I’m assuming that when you painted over Candidate, and Silo was finished, the intention was absolutely [that] this shouldn’t happen; it was to blank out any kind of bleed from beneath, and it was to remain this sort of opaque blue…

James Rosenquist: Yeah, at that moment, you know, and that was right in the – God, I don’t know – it was in the middle of whole lot of other projects too. So I mean, in restoration, artists who get all fired up and inspired will start gluing grass on the canvas, and string and everything else, and after a while that stuff will start falling on the floor. And it’s done when they don’t have materials and they don’t have money, and so forth. So it’s a peculiar thing. In Leningrad, the Hermitage in 1965, I saw some Picassos and Matisses, and so forth, way up in the dark. And they never made postcards of them either. They never advertised those French paintings. And they were flaking. They were in some disrepair. And you look at them, and you go, ‘Jeez. That painting was done in 1921, and it sure looks like it, cos it’s so old looking’ … So then I come back to New York, and I used to go to Sidney Janis Gallery, and he’d haul out a brand new – I mean, another 1921 Picasso, and it’s been waxed, it’s been cleaned, it’s been fixed. It looks like it was painted yesterday. So you don’t get the feeling that it was done in 1921. But that’s a peculiar thing. So when it comes to restoration, owners of paintings, a lot of times, as long as they’re not totally falling apart, they don’t want anyone to touch them. They want to leave them in their original look.

Rachel Barker: So looking at the painting, are you happy that it continues to represent – as it is now, in this condition – that it is an authentic image.

James Rosenquist: Sure!

Rachel Barker: Okay…

James Rosenquist: I mean, you know, the statement to the museum can be ‘This painting was a work in progress’.

Rachel Barker: Sure.

James Rosenquist: And it started out as Candidate and then it went to… and then I changed it to… Here’s another thing. Let me tell you something else about painters. A guy like Arshille Gorky, Rembrandt, de Kooning – sometimes their financial problems dictated an aesthetic. De Kooning, who was so ferocious – he was a good friend of mine – he would be painting away [makes whooshing noises]. He used to have a drink; this is him having a drink [more whooshing noises]. He’s painting away and he goes ‘God dammit’. And then he got mad, and then he scraped it all… he’s scraping it all off. And he scraped it up, and then he started another painting and the same thing. And he would go through, like six incredibly beautiful paintings on the same canvas because he didn’t have money, or didn’t take the time to make another canvas. He didn’t at that time – I don’t think he had assistants … Here’s a funny one: I was there one time – he was painting away – and he got mad and he scraped the paint off. Who walks in the door but [Edy] de Wilde from Amsterdam, the curator of the Stedelijk. And he goes, ‘Oh! So fantastic! We must have this new ghostly style of yours. We are ready to pay you $40,000 for this!’ And Bill turns around with his trowel, and he throws it on the floor, and he goes ‘God dammit, no!’ And I liked him for that, because he wouldn’t sell him this thing he didn’t like. And it was down to the canvas, with just this soft image left on there. Ha! So, also Gorky. Arshile Gorky; he was very poor. He could do a drawing on a beautiful piece of paper, and then he’d sandpaper it. Pretty soon he’d sandpaper through the other side. He ruined it. Who did that? Rembrandt! Etchings. He’d do something, scrape out an image, use something to scrape it off; pretty soon he’d scraped a hole in it – ruin it, ruin the plate. But they’d print it too, anyway, though.

Rachel Barker: I think that’s really good; that really clarifies all my anxieties about the composition, because as a rule…

James Rosenquist: Don’t lose any sleep!

Rachel Barker: …I was wondering, ‘Should I…’ – you know, I wanted to record information for the future as well, because I’m sure that, at some stage in the future, [if] this mouth does begin to dominate the Silo composition, then they may be tempted at some stage to try and paint it out and reinforce the Silo image. So I think that really clarifies the situation for the future as well. I’ve read in the catalogue that you are always keen to maintain that a good painting is one that makes you seek out information over a long period of time. That certainly is something we can say about this painting.

James Rosenquist: It seeps out. You don’t seek it; it seems to come out of it … Actually, I wish I’d never painted the face out, because it was too… I think I was just gree… you know, again, wanted to keep on working.

Rachel Barker: Are you serious? If we could seriously, and safely, remove the Silo painting, we really would like to return the painting to Candidate.

Tom Learner: Whatever you say won’t be binding.

Rachel Barker: We won’t hold you to it.

Tom Learner: We’d just be very interested to hear your initial thoughts on that.

James Rosenquist: No, I think you should just let it go and let it…

Rachel Barker: And leave it as it is?

James Rosenquist: Yes, because then you might have a very peculiar look coming through, which would be better.

Rachel Barker: Okay.

James Rosenquist: Spooky … We’ll call it ‘the mystery… the changing mystery painting’.

Rachel Barker: Okey-dokey. I wish all artists were as easy-going.

James Rosenquist: Because you know why? I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t think… I think it’s going to look peculiar, instead of looking like a wreck. I mean, there are paintings, and you have a painting with an image on it, and the painting is falling off on the floor and everything, you’d say, ‘God that’s a mess’. But this one has something strange going on, so I think this is quite different. So charge extra to see it!