A special installation recently opened at MoMA of James Rosenquist’s F-111, an 86-foot-long painting that the artist designed to extend around all four walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery, at 4 East 77 Street in Manhattan. Rosenquist began the painting in 1964, at a decidedly tense and tumultuous moment in this country, as the Vietnam War steadily escalated abroad and anti-war activism gained momentum at home. The subject, the F-111 fighter-bomber plane, was in development at the time as part of a military initiative that ended up costing $75 million; funded by American tax dollars, it was meant to be the most technologically advanced weapon in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal. Rosenquist painted the body of the plane to span the work’s 23 panels, interspersed with spliced-in images of commercial products and references to war—fragments of what he has called “the flak of consumer society.” Through this expanse of colliding visual motifs, F-111 points to what the artist has described as “the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”
This installation marks the first time F-111 has been presented at MoMA as it was initially exhibited at the Castelli Gallery in 1965. From seeing it personally in the past, and from studying detail images in textbooks and slides, I felt I had garnered at least a basic understanding of the work’s important political message about the economic implications and consequences of war. But it was not until we finished installing and I first stepped inside the intimate environment created by the vividly colored wraparound panels that I really registered the painting’s immersive effect.
This was no accident. Rosenquist has often cited a keen interest in the phenomenon of peripheral vision as a driving force behind his decision to make a room-scaled painting. Whatever our eye focuses on at any given moment is necessarily influenced by information at the outermost perimeters of our field of vision, which in turn plays a profound, yet often subconscious, role in our sensory perception. For Rosenquist, who first experimented with this concept while making F-111 and continued to do so throughout his career, the Impressionist painter Claude Monet was a touchstone. He recalls having seen a photograph of the older artist in his studio, surrounded by art spread out on the floor. By standing “in a circle of his own paintings so that he could only see his own colors,” Rosenquist has explained, Monet could successfully access the full range of his vision. In the series of mural-size paintings he made in the last years of his life known as the Water Lilies (1914–26, two examples of which are on view in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries on the Museum’s fifth floor), Monet set out to create an enveloping environment for the viewer. He imagined these paintings installed in the round, following the arc of curved walls, so that the perimeter of each panel would disappear and the viewer could float, as it were, like a lily along the surface of the water.
Rosenquist also locates a major source of inspiration for his concern with peripheral vision in the work of Abstract Expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Pollock actually worked directly on the floor, a method that “provided a total saturation of the eye because he was only five feet from the floor [and the] painting was all around him,” Rosenquist explained. His process afforded him a unique vantage point, from which he was able to produce expansive, allover compositions that seem to extend beyond the edges of the canvas even when finished and hung on the wall.
And from speaking to his friend Newman, Rosenquist began to think about the importance of the viewer’s orientation in space. Even if one were to concentrate on a single “zip” in one of Newman’s monumentally-scaled paintings, such as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51, on view on the Museum’s fourth floor), the eye becomes filled, as Rosenquist observed, “with all the other color coming at you from the two sides.”
The panoramic form of F-111 effectively accommodates its content, which Rosenquist developed through a series of preparatory collages that are also on view. The selection of images in the painting, drawn from the collages, and the surprising juxtapositions he creates with them, affirms his ambition to create an immersive environment that heightens the viewer’s awareness of his or her own position in space. A former billboard painter working atop buildings and on busy New York streets, Rosenquist, like many of us city dwellers, was constantly confronted with the fragmented images of the urban landscape. In a sense, the network of colliding imagery in the painting reflects the chaotic experience of simply being in the world, consistently bombarded on all sides by a steady stream of extremely heterogeneous visual information.
Please come see this very special presentation of F-111, on view through July 30 on the Museum’s fourth floor, outside the entrance to the Painting and Sculpture Galleries. And if you’d like to hear more from the artist, watch the video below, or join a conversation about the work by responding to the artist’s statements on MoMA.org.