Evolutionary Balance, 1977
James Rosenquist, American, 1933–2017
Oil on canvas mounted on panel
Overall: 80 3/4 × 183 × 2 3/4 in. (205.1 × 464.8 × 7 cm) Five canvases, each: 80 3/4 × 36 1/2 × 2 3/4 in. (205 × 92.7 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Charles Engelhard Foundation
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- THESIS STATEMENT/Topic Sentence
- TEXT STRUCTURE—the idea that compositions should have a beginning, middle, and end
- CONTENT VOCABULARY: Mood, Symbolism, Theme, Sequential or Chronological Order
Connecting to the Work of Art
As a student, artist James Rosenquist developed an interest in painting and took up billboard painting to make money. After moving to New York in 1955, he became involved in the art scene and began to experiment with some of the ideas and techniques he had developed while painting billboards. Rosenquist, one of the originators of Pop Art (a reaction to the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the 1950s), is known for his images of popular culture and fragmented spatial relations.
The composition of Evolutionary Balance is divided into three major sections. The left side depicts the stylized head of a woman placed over a bright interior. She represents the image of youth; the perfect features of a model superimposed over a sunlit interior. The center shows memory and time passing as a clipboard with birthday candles near the top and a body of water with a floating oar beneath. The right side shows the silhouette of a skull amid a tangle of colored abstract lines that depicts old age and death. A slice of uncooked bacon stretches across the composition, uniting the three sections and representing the corporeal, mortal body. Using media-generated images, Rosenquist attempts to address issues of life, death, and the passage of time. As the title suggests, an evolution is taking place from left to right, with the end result acting as a kind of memento mori, or reminder of death.
The artist’s seemingly irrational juxtapositions reference Surrealism; however, his imagery is from pop-cultural, mass-produced items and images from magazines, popular films, and other media sources. While employed as a sign painter, Rosenquist worked on enormous displays, including billboards in Times Square. This experience inspired him to draw from elements of the advertising world, such as abridged format, garish colors, and airbrush techniques. The techniques and subject matter of commercial billboard art found their way into his work in the form of intense color, monumental scale, and distinct crispness. As seen here, he lifted objects from their natural environments and juxtaposed them with others, offering the viewer a side-by-side comparison. Rosenquist once said "Painting is probably much more exciting than advertising, so why shouldn't it be done with that power and gusto, with that impact."
With the beginning of the 1960s came the end of Abstract Expressionism, and the emergence of the Pop Art movement. A growing disillusionment with the government was taking place, as well as advances in civil rights, a heightened concern for the environment, and increased exploration in space. As they became increasingly aware of the consumer culture that had been created by postwar abundance, artists began moving away from “highbrow” subjects and embracing the realities of everyday life, which included visual satisfaction from television, magazines, and comics.
- Describe the objects in this work. Since only fragmented sections of the objects are presented, how does the objects’ placement within the composition guide the view or offer clues on how to read the work?
- How is this painting similar to a collage? What effect does the collage-like composition add to the work?
- How would you describe the colors used in this work of art? Are they cool tones, such a blues and greens, or are they warm tones, such as reds and oranges? How do the colors add to the stylized appearance of the work?
- Notice the crispness of the lines and shapes. Where in the everyday world would you find similar images?
- How do the abstract scribbles in the right panel add tension to the work compared to the other sharp, recognizable images?
- Early in the artist’s career, he was a billboard painter. How do you see a relation to his experience as a billboard painter and this work of art?
- Consider the horizontal format and large scale of this work. How would the work be different if it were smaller?
- These objects appear to be lifted from their natural environments and placed in timeless, undefined space. How does the lack of a contextual backdrop create a sense of void? What other words would you use to describe the tone of this work?
- How does the artist’s use of bright warm tones add to the intensity in the work? How would the tone be different if the artist used cooler tones, which typically denote a sense of calm and tranquility?
- Consider the symbolism behind each object. What relationship do you think the objects have to each other?
- This work was created at a time when many artists were critiquing consumer society. How does the artist reference consumer society in the work? Consider both the objects and their presentation.
- What associations do we have the candles on a cake? The artist included these candles as a means to represent youth. Do you think the birthday candles successfully represent youth?
- Where do you think the sources for the objects pictured are from? Why do you think the artist chose to use everyday, recognizable images?
- While the objects are recognizable, they do not reference a certain time or place. How does this lack of specificity allow the work to be universal?
- How does this work act as a kind of memento mori, or reminder of death?
Connecting to the Classroom
- What ties the painting together as a Big Idea? (the bacon) How is the bacon like a topic sentence in a paragraph or a thesis statement in an essay?
- Lead students through a discussion of the individual panel strips, paying close attention to detail. What does each panel represent?
- Do any of the ordinary objects take on a larger meaning? (symbolism)
- How is the painting like a good paragraph? (Lead students through observation and inquiry to the conclusion that the painting has a beginning, middle, and end, and a unifying “topic sentence” —the bacon strip)
- How is the painting like a good essay? (Lead students through a similar conclusion that the painting has a beginning with a central idea, a middle with a central idea, and an end, with a unifying idea, as well as a “thesis statement” —the bacon strip.)
- Is the painting more like a paragraph or an essay? (Lead students to a conclusion that the painting is more like an essay, because of the multiple levels of ideas that would be too broad for one paragraph.)
- Before viewing the painting, prepare a “brainstorming warm-up” panel for use on an overhead—cut the painting up into 3 same-sized panels, but reorder the painting parts in an order different than the original. Prepare a second image with the panels ordered in a different way, but also different than the original. Ask students with each what they see, paying attention to detail. (Ideally, you will lead students into a conclusion that these “mismatched” panels seem “off” —that is, the “unifying theme—the bacon strip” doesn’t make sense if the panels aren’t in the order the artist intended.) Then show the true order of the panels from the painting. Ask students: Put in the order that the artist intended, does the painting now seem to make more “sense?” Why? Or, Why not? Follow with a discussion using the Questions to Ask to Encourage Habits of Mind (listed above).
- LEAD-IN TO A UNIT ON EXPOSITORY WRITING or LITERARY ANALYSIS: As a class, have students develop a thesis statement relating to the painting. Then, prepare a model paragraph with a topic sentence and a good beginning, middle, and end that relates to the first panel. With the students, write a “class paragraph” for the middle panel, with the same structure as the model paragraph. Break students into groups and have each group develop an “ending paragraph” with the same structure. Share.
- Have a model, short essay handout. Have students highlight the thesis statement one color, the topic sentence in each paragraph another color, the supporting sentences another color, and the concluding sentences another color. Students would then write their own essays following this text structure.
- As a prelude to or as a follow-up reinforcement activity, students could be placed in groups, choose a song, and create a group dance that has a unifying theme, a beginning, middle (support), and end.
Subject Matter Connection
Rosenquist’s Evolutionary Balance is an ideal work of art to form a bridge between developing habits of mind generally and reinforcing basic writing organizational skills in your language arts habits of mind curriculum component. Middle school students can have difficulty making the transition from the “paragraph-centered” writing of elementary school and the longer, more detailed writing and organizational skills required in middle school curriculums. By analyzing the structure of Rosenquist’s Evolutionary Balance, students should come to a better understanding of the writing trait of organization. Developing a multi-paragraph expository essay or literary analysis requires the ability to observe details relating to the topic of the written piece, to analyze varying information sources, and synthesize those sources and the student’s own thoughts. Communication of ideas requires organization. Thus, clarity of writing requires good organization, and analysis of this painting can help students understand the importance of organization to good writing. Because the painting is rich with symbolism, it also can be a springboard to students’ understanding of symbolism not only in this work of art, but in literature, too.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.