Pop art legend James Rosenquist has lived and worked in Florida for years, often garnering awards and recognition from the state. So it’s only fitting that he should be the keynote speaker when the Hermitage Artist Retreat’s Greenfield Prize is awarded to visual artist Sanford Biggers on April 15 during a celebration at Michael’s On East. We spoke with Rosenquist while he was in New York, basking in the glow of a recent show of his art opening there. (For tickets to the Greenfield Prize Celebration, call 475-2098.)
Q. How did this New York show come together? I’d been planning it for a while, and then a horrible fire came along last April and destroyed seven of the pieces that were going to be in it. [The fire also destroyed Rosenquist’s home and studio in rural Aripeka, north of Tampa.] So I hastily put together a small studio under our guest house, which is on stilts and didn’t burn, and went back to work painting them again.
Q. How did you happen to come to Florida from New York back in the ’70s? I was invited to make some prints at Graphicstudio [at the University of South Florida in Tampa]. I took a drive up the coast and saw this beautiful area on the Gulf that was not owned by a corporation. I made the owner an offer; she said no; I doubled it. Later she called me out of the blue and agreed to sell it. Over the years I’ve bought more land there, so I have about 100 acres now.
Q. Does Florida offer artistic inspiration for you? There’s something about the light in Florida, the reflected light from the water. Here your tears form either broken glass or diamonds, but they don’t get soggy.
Q. Did you miss being away from the artistic community of New York? I work on my own, so I’m OK with that. The sad thing is a lot of my friends and acquaintances in Aripeka have died, including the architect of my house, which is also gone now.
Q. Any artists you particularly admire these days? Frank Stella is terrific, and I liked the old [Robert] Rauschenberg work. As far as young ones, I don’t see a lot of talent. It’s not that I want people to do work like mine; I like exotic stuff that’s totally different from me. But the problem is the artists don’t know art history. They think they’re doing something new, but they’re repeating. And sometimes, I hate to say it, their teachers don’t know anything, either.
Q. Your memoir, Painting Below Zero, came out last year to good reviews. How did that come about? David Dalton, my co-writer, I had known from the old days in the art world in New York. He said I needed to do a book before I got Alzheimer’s. So I sat down and taped and taped, and he did the fact checking and all that. I thought I had an ordinary life; but it turned out, it wasn’t so ordinary.
The thing about being an artist, I can look at my paintings and each one has a life around it. Like, this one is from when I was divorced, with that one I was in the hospital, this one, I had my daughter. A stockbroker, all they have to remember is numbers. That’s not very illuminating. —Kay Kipling