Giant Art - In Perspective

guggenheim museum exterior
In the tiny fishing town of Aripeka, Fla., life is simple. Apart from trips to Carl Norfleet's general store or Ron Holiday's dock for stone crabs, not much happens there. Not much ever will. And that's the way James Rosenquist likes it.

The sleepy Gulf Coast hamlet has been home, studio and retreat to the artist for 20 years. The studio James Rosenquist built is the size of an airplane hanger filled with art and paint and one slightly used Ferrari.

"This is my paint," Rosenguist tells 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer in an interview for CBS News Sunday Morning. "All the colors in the universe. Right there. All of them. From infrared to ultraviolet and I use paper cups from the lower East Side of Manhattan - Chinese food cups - for mix, a malted milk mixer.

The painter mixes his paints, and, for big paintings, he uses 30 or 40 cups of paint.

Rosenguist has changed the very nature of American art over the last half-century, critics says. He was part of a '50s revolution. In blindingly bright colors on epic-sized canvasses, he cast a warm but critical eye on his world.

That Rosenguist is known to do some large paintings may be an understatement.

"I don't do things just because they're big," he says. "It's because if we're standing there, it is a peripheral ambiance in the eye, in the peripheral vision of the eye. Then if we go across the room … you can see it from a distance. Then it's a painting. Then it's a composition. Then it's something."

After no major museum shows in almost two decades, James Rosenquist finds himself once again in the spotlight, his life's work the subject of a traveling retrospective now on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

During the opening night at the museum, a collection of nearly 200 paintings, prints and sculpture, plus a visual insight into how this maestro of the apparently mundane works are displayed. Collages – ripped from the pages of Life Magazine – became the template for his monumental paintings. The hood of a car, a fragment of Marilyn Monroe's lips, a piece of cake, dishes stacked. It's the crazy pavement of everyday American life.

The artist is called a master storyteller and a visual poet. Rosenquist was born in 1933 in Grand Forks, N.D. By the age of 10, he settled with his family in Minneapolis. His mother, an amateur painter, encouraged his interest in art:

"What makes an artist is inquisitiveness," he says. "One time, I was sneaking into the art institute in Minneapolis and running home and saying, 'Mama, Mama, Mama, they found a dead body, they've got dead bodies in there and haven't buried them yet.' They were Egyptian mummies."

He first started drawing on rolls of old wallpaper. As a teenager, he won a scholarship to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Later, he studied painting at the University of Minnesota and almost immediately became a professional painter – a sign painter:

"I tried out for a job with General Outdoor Advertising in Minneapolis. And I walked into this place and the foreman was a man named Henry Bevins," Rosenquist recalls. "And I said, 'I can paint that.'"

"That" was a huge sign for macaroni and cheese from Kraft foods.

"I said, 'I can do this.' He said, "Oh yeah? We can always use a good man around here. We don't let people do that until they've been here 20 years.' I said, 'Well, I can do that.'"

He painted billboards celebrating Coca-Cola and Northwest Airlines. In 1955, he quit, moved to New York and for a year studied at the Art Students League, went broke and went job hunting. It was back to billboards when he joined Local 230 of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades union.

"Here's these gruff guys in checkered, you know, those lumberjack shirts. [They're] old Italian guys – tough," Rosenquist says. "They said, "There's no work for you. There's no jobs here. What do you want here? Transferring in here?'"

Rosenquist told the men he was willing to wait his turn. The old men laughed and said, "OK, kid. Bring us a $275 initiation fee on 'Thoisday.'"

On weekdays, Rosenquist was painting billboards in Times Square. When he could, he designed displays and painted backdrops for store windows along Fifth Avenue. On weekends, he worked on his own paintings.

The billboard work allowed Rosenquist to learn scaling and squaring things up. But in 1959, after two men fell off a Klein's Department store billboard and another fell off the Budweiser sign in Kearny, N.J., Rosenquist decided the job was too dangerous for him. He quit and never went back.

He rented a small studio in downtown Manhattan, living and working among a legendary group of artists – Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman.

"I started painting and I didn't know what to do, but I didn't want to be like anybody else," says Rosenquist. "I thought how could I make a mysterious picture by taking fragments of things I knew how to paint really well, placing them in space on a picture plane, so the thing you would recognize last would be the thing closest to your nose."

James Rosenquist had developed his unique signature, depicting the most familiar of objects and people in monumental scale.

One of his first pictures is called "President Elect," a portrait of President John F. Kennedy – one of the highlights in the Guggenheim show.

For the president-elect Eisenhower, Rosenquist took a campaign poster in black and white and added his own color to Eisenhower's face.

In 1962, Rosenquist had his first solo show. It was a sellout. Two years later he made his most memorable work, the "F-111" -- a 86-feet-long, 10-feet high painting that virtually filled all four walls of a 24- by 24-foot room. He sold it in the '60s for $25,000. It was recently sold for $5 million.

"It's a question of war, a question of war economy. It takes a lot of ideas for me to get up off the chair to start working and this came about from a number of ideas," he said of the "F-111."

It was inspired by the sight of an abandoned fighter plane that was in an amusement park. The images are striking – a Firestone tire, a cake with white icing, light bulbs, a little girl under a hair dryer, a beach umbrella, a mushroom cloud and spaghetti. To some, the painting is heir to Picasso's Spanish civil war's "Guernica."

James Rosenquist is still very much in the game, enjoying critical and financial success. He divides his time between houses in Manhattan, Bedford and Florida. He is still obsessed visually by the man-made objects and by the raw excesses of nature he sees around him in his small paradise and by the science and technology that increasingly rules our lives.

In many ways, the painter is a product of his own work -- a living breathing and still-growing collage.

"I'd just like to keep going," Rosenquist says.