People of the Book James Rosenquist Wasn't Jewish

Somehow, James Rosenquist wasn’t Jewish, neither were Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Wesselman, Hamilton, Warhol or Jasper Johns. The only Jew among the famous pop artists was Roy Lichtenstein.

Art never got more “Jewish” than abstract expressionism, but pop art was most definitely “goyish.” Jews were too busy making popular culture to think about whether it was high art. Not all the artisans who designed cars, built sets, painted billboards and pointed cameras were Jews, but the number who were was disproportionate to the American population. It takes a lethal kind of earnestness few Jews possess to attempt ironic artistic statements about a phenomenon so brined in irony.

Shallowness can’t delve deeply, and pop art is deliberately shallow — reproducing images that popular culture reproduces by the millions. But the prints of pop art were based on a lie — within its irony, it displays a lethally earnest, obsessive longing for the kind of bourgeois domesticity it claims to lampoon. Ostensibly, their works are contemptuous parodies, but in fact they’re loving tributes. Warhol and company may be worshipped like gods, but within their paintings they raise a mass culture created by Jews to the level of Christian iconography.

Except for Rauschenberg, who wasn’t really a pop artist, Rosenquist was the only famous one whose work was more complex than mass reproduction. He considered himself a collagist, and his collages juxtaposed media images with a Dali-or-Freud-like illogic of dreams. This is closer to how we see pop culture — it doesn’t care whether we worship it, it just cares that we buy it, and the way to make us buy it is through addiction.

No great achievement of an individual can addict us the way mass-produced items can. A home-cooked meal never has the sugar and sodium of fast food, a musical composition is never as easy to follow as a three-chord song with a hook, why read books or see plays when you can flip a switch to be entertained by TV? Like drugs, there are formulas that worm into our brains with logic we’ll never understand. For me, that’s Rosenquist’s insight — his images overlay one another with the chaos of a subconscious with no control over thoughts it brings to us — thoughts dominated by what popular culture dictates we consume.

Popular culture was omnipresent in postwar America in a way not even our era can equal. Unlike today, when pop culture conquered the world so thoroughly that you can move freely through thousands of niches, in 1955 your options were two: submit to a monolith that let you discover glories within its mountains of crap, or reject it completely and exist within a cocoon of like minds who shut themselves from the wider world’s stinking corruption. But unlike today’s scenes, which borrow from each other with infinities of democratic fusion (it’s not always as great as it sounds), these cocoons isolated their dwellers from any person, place or thing that potentially stank of mass appeal.

It was barely ten years after WWII. Mass culture stank of Nuremberg and Kamakaze pilots — and perhaps it will again. For any visual artist who so hates modernity to refuse painting anything the culture industry could exploit, it means all that’s open to them is colors and shapes. Ironically, they’re known as modernists.

The famous Jews among modernists, more specifically, abstract expressionists, were far more numerous than pop artists: Rothko, Nevelson, Newman, Gottlieb, Frank, Frankenthaler and Krasner (who married their king, Jackson Pollock). They created an insular community resembling the Essenes of Herodian times; living ascetically (albeit drunkenly) in the Judean desert of Long Island — embracing ultra-modernity in the New York suburbs by being closed to any modern influence except for the most modern influences of all — math and science. Where pop art was provincial, abstract expressionism was rootless. Where pop art prided itself on wit, abstract expressionism thought itself a response to tragedy.

Whether grounding their work in the biological X-rays of De Kooning, the optical psychology of Rothko or the fractal chaos of Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionists attempted to render conditions deeper than the visual world. Yet their self-conscious loftiness became a fashion like any other — moreso because they deluded themselves that their style was no style at all.

Somewhere between the facile entertainment of pop art and the castrating chastity of abstract expressionism lay the visual language of the best Hollywood movies, the true literature of the American Era designed to simultaneously entertain and move. It is so hard to be a traditional artist in a country designed for mass culture, and James Rosenquist was one of the few famous American artists of his era who said meaningful things amid pop culture’s omnipresent hum. He died last month, but long may he live.

Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.

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