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)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
GRADE LEVEL6, 7, 8
Writing Fractions and Percentages
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.
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 object’s placement within composition guide offer viewers 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?
Rosenquist has presented the diverse imagery of Evolutionary Balance in 5 separate panels. You can use this dispersal of imagery to discuss fractions and percentages with your class.
After discussing the painting with your class, ask if they can identify where the 5 panels divide the painting. What objects do students think occupy the most space on the panels? Form hypotheses, then use the 5 sections of the painting to determine the answer using fractions.
Draw a horizontal line through the center of an image of the painting, so that each of the 5 panels is divided in half, and there are now 10 equal sections. Begin by focusing on one object; count how many sections it occupies. How can you represent that with a fraction? (For example, the face occupies 4 out of 10 sections, or 4/10 of the work.)
After representing several objects with fractions, practice reducing, simplifying, and converting to decimals and percentages.
Subject Matter Connection
Students will be taking a work of art and communicating mathematical ideas through it. It’s important to be able to look at math outside of simply numbers. Fraction-decimal-percentage conversions are used from 6th through 8th grade as percent applications progress. Students will use rational numbers in solving equations in 7th and 8th grade math.
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.