As part of the Rose Art Museum’s “Close Looking Series,” Brandeis Fine Arts lecturer Scott Patrick Wiener hosted a discussion on James Rosenquist’s 1963 painting, “Two 1959 People” on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
The painting was a combination of several pieces of recognizable images, all juxtaposed in a manner that was meant to empty them of their original meaning and create a new one. The piece was painted on a five feet by five feet canvas.
The main subject of the painting is a license plate with five red zeros on it in place of the typical form of plate identification. On the left side of the piece is a man, painted from behind from the lapel up in 1959 attire in, as Wiener put it, a “lavender washed grayscale.” On the opposite side is an upside-down cross section of a smiling woman from a 1950s advertisement. The rest of the composition is filled by a simplified black and red boat and a chaotic green and black pattern (an arabesque, as Wiener described it) enclosed in a crust of what the group decided was clearly Wonder bread. But the defining features of the piece are a fishing rod hanging above the composition and a pair of arms reaching towards a strip of unpainted canvas towards the bottom of the piece.
Wiener, reading from a paper he had prepared for the event, began by discussing the meaning of the painting on a macro level before commenting on each facet of the painting, and how each individual image contributed to the overall meaning. Wiener discussed a quote from Rosenquist, which reads, “Painting below zero, that meant reintroducing imagery in a non objective manner.” He examined how this painting is an embodiment of that concept, suggesting that in it Rosenquist “zeroes [the images] out in favor of an empty signifier.” The room proceeded to discuss how each facet contributes to that zeroing and what Rosenquist’s intention could have been. One point of contention in particular was whether he really meant to present these once meaningful images free of association or whether he meant more with the painting.
The audience went on to ask questions and present ideas about what the symbols on the canvas represented. Some of the themes discussed were the meanings of nothingness in a capitalist society, the value of advertising and whether the audience is even supposed to like the piece. An important moment of Wiener’s lecture was when he gave a nod to the Ford Hall 2015 movement. He notes that 1959 was toward the start of the Civil Rights Movement and listed several events of discrimination and civil rights successes during that year. However, he only referenced the Ford Hall protest and didn’t expand his thoughts on the movement.
One of the highlights was the discussion of the fishing rod. Wiener described it as “an easy metaphor” for trying to fish something out of nothing. He described it as a very simple addition to the piece, but an essential one. A point many audience members chimed in on was the reaching arms in the bottom of the piece. Many thought that the contorted nature of one of the arms meant that they had to be from more than one person. Discussion also focused on the fact that they were reaching for the blank strip of canvas.
My own interpretation is that the arms symbolize a romance towards nothingness. They rise out of a chaotic pattern, reaching from the lavender sepia man on the left towards the blank strip, as if Rosenquist is saying that even nothingness is better than the chaos of the past. The presence of the misplaced advertisements, in my opinion, signify Rosenquist’s assertion that the constant flood of media and advertisements ultimately signify nothing. This interpretation was echoed by several audience members.
Ultimately all interpretations of the piece are subjective, and to Wiener this is a good thing. The end of the discussion centered around whether art is supposed to be attractive or make the viewer think. And that question itself is something each audience member must think about.