It Heals Up: For All Children's Hospital
"It Heals Up is an optimistic sculpture about showing how the magic of the human body can overcome terrible afflictions with the magic and hard work and expertise of the Doctors and staff of The University of South Florida's All Children's Medical Research Center. I commend them for their spirit."
- James Rosenquist
James Rosenquist: It Heals Up: For All Children's Hospital
by William Jeffett
The installation of James Rosenquist's It Heals Up: For All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg is a remarkable event. Not only is the sculpture an important addition to the urban environment of St. Petersburg, but it is the artist's very first public sculpture. So, celebration is in order. Moreover, it is Rosenquist's first public artwork to be installed in Florida.
Of course, this is not the first time Rosenquist has made sculpture, nor is it the first time he has made public art. Though principally a painter, Rosenquist has often deployed three-dimensional elements in relation to painting, in a kind of "combine" technique. As early as the 1960s, Rosenquist made sculptures such as the two works called Tumbleweed (1963 and 1967) and Shelf-Life (1972). The first version of Tumbleweed consists of neon and barbed wire wrapped around an armature made up of three wood boards. As the critic Robert Pincus-Witten described this sculpture, writing in his book Postminimalism, "Tumbleweed continues to explore aggressive and lacerating possibly mortifying, tactile effects. The Surrealist implications of Rosenquist's work of this period are clearly recognizable as a function of unanticipated tactile effects, particularly the sharp and spiky." Raw, the sculpture suggests a military blockade as much as a work of art, and the sculpture perfectly captures the tense political climate of the early 1960s. As Gene Swenson, wrote in 1968 in the British magazine Art and Artists, "one of Rosenquist's themes is the sensuality of objects." A photograph of Rosenquist working on this sculpture was featured on the cover of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1964 with the caption "Pop Art, after Two Years."
Rosenquist's ambitious 1965 mural painting, F-111, presented at Leo Castelli, established his reputation as a critical pop artist. Its all around subject matter enveloped the viewer in a pictorial environment. Furthermore, the painting was taken as an anti-war statement, though in reality it addressed the relation of the consumer society to the economy of the Cold War. The second version of Tumbleweed (1967) continued this social direction. Dedicated to Martin Luther King, this sculpture asserted the artist's commitment to the principle of Civil Rights. Shelf-Life was more of a Duchampian gesture in that it is an intervention in the field of the viewer. A door frame with an open door invites us to walk through it; in doing so, we trigger a string which makes a small can of paint fall from above suggesting that we inhabit the same space as art, and that art is integrated into real life and not removed to the sphere of "high" culture. The large-scale painting Star Thief (1980), though not a commission, was supposed to be bought for the Miami International Airport, which would have made it a public work, but at the last moment the sale of the work was blocked by Frank Borman, Chairman of Eastern Airlines, and the painting ended up in the Ludwig Collection. In the realm of public art, Rosenquist has both served on an NEA panel as a commissioner and made numerous large-scale painting commissions. For example, the recent three-painting mural The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997) was made for the Deutsche Guggenheim. Here the subject addresses the uncertainty of the post-Cold War world. The ceiling mural for the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, destined for the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, measures 24 x 133 feet and posed the problem of creating an image which could be viewed from all sides. Equally social in subject matter, this commission affirms the international principle, only recently enforced, of the fundamental concept of inalienable human rights. These are some notable examples of ambitious commissions made for permanent installation in specific public locations. Rosenquist believes that public sculpture is more than a matter of good work; it is a matter of appropriate location and thoughtful positioning within a context. It is this he has sought to achieve with It Heals Up.
The materials used in Rosenquist's USF Children's Research Institute sculpture represent the complexity of the commission and the structural need to resist the harsh sub-tropical weather, particularly the sun. The surface of the sculpture is fabricated in polyester resin with an interior of foamcore made out of polyeurethene and an aluminum honeycomb. This technique is employed in the fabrication of boats and airplanes. The fabrication of the structure was undertaken by Richard Stauffer, a boat maker working in Aripeka, Florida near Rosenquist's studio. The paint Rosenquist used to apply the design is a high-gloss Dupont Imron which is a polyeurethene paint (two part chemical cure). In this way, Rosenquist's design was bonded to the fiberglass structure of the sculpture in such as way as to protect the image from the weather for the maximum amount of time. The fiberglass surface is supported by a welded aluminum frame that also provides the bracket, which fixes it to the facade of the building.
The prominent location of the sculpture high up on the facade of the building makes it visible to both pedestrian and driver alike. In this way, it performs a signage function, signaling the location of the University of South Florida Children's Research Institute, a research facility which works cooperatively with All Children's Hospital.
In the development of the project, Rosenquist first considered the idea of an arm holding out a bandage. His idea was always to celebrate the research and treatment of children's illnesses. Little by little, the more literal idea of an arm was distilled to the image of an ordinary adhesive bandage, as a symbol of the healing of minor bruises and abrasions in childhood. Still, the slightly angled position of the sculpture echoed the original idea of first aid provided by a benevolent helping hand. The simplicity of the image stood in for the complexity of the research. That the sculpture breaks the line of the top of the building suggests that it is a symbol of help as an uplifting and altruistic force. Rosenquist was interested in the beige color of the brickwork on the facade. In this way the bandage is applied to the "skin" of the building, which becomes metaphoric of the human skin of children, another symbol of health care. A rainbow pattern suggests that the need for research in the care of children is a universal concern for all ethnicities. And here Rosenquist points to the international and multi-cultural dimension of the research conducted in this facility. This concern echoes some of the imagery used in the aforementioned Paris mural dedicated to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. Other designs include more abstract celestial images and an archaic cipher-like alphabet, all deployed in a playful manner. The idea is that healing connects with larger social and community concerns.
Rosenquist's It Heals Up works according not only to the designs painted on it, but according to the principle of scale and enlargement. An adhesive bandage is a small, ordinary object found in any home and used for the treatment of minor abrasions. Here the ordinary small object is transformed into the public monument. It is a universally recognizable and readable image and object. There is no opaque intention, and it is a clear and transparent statement. This approach is rooted in the Pop Art position of Rosenquist's early years. In terms of sculpture, this strategy parallels the work of Claes Oldenburg, in whose sculpture dramatic enlargement of ordinary objects are sited in public contexts, as in The Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) at Yale or the 45 foot tall Clothespin (1976) in Philadelphia. In contrast to Oldenburg, the soft adhesive bandage is rendered hard, whereas in Oldenburg's work the hard is transformed into the soft. Beyond Oldenburg, the dramatic and poetic transformation of the commonplace into sculpture was undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s by the Catalan sculptor Joan Miró. As with Miró, Rosenquist here offers a humorous and playful image, one which is at once light-hearted and serious. As Harriet Senie has argued in her book Contemporary Public Sculpture, "transformations of humble objects have the potential to provide an Alice in Wonderland experience, creating a sense of surprise and delight, compelling us to see things anew. As expressions of materialism in a secular society, they imply that our commonality lies in shared objects rather than ideas and ideals." Rosenquist's approach follows this observation with the difference that the object is also a bearer of ideas and ideals. If in his earlier sculptures the tactile is implied in the choice of materials, here the tactile is transformed into a symbolic image, by virtue of the application of the painted elements. Of course, an adhesive bandage is a tactile object: it touches the skin. In the positioning of the sculpture, it is removed from the proximity of the viewer and points to the tactile dimension of care and healing taking place inside the building. No longer is there the implied aggression of Tumbleweed with its spiky materials. Rather this is a positive image of how the most advanced work in modern medicine can help to address the all too common experience of human suffering. Furthermore, it points to the necessity of society at large and equally the international community taking up the challenge of universal health care.
Dr. William Jeffett is Curator of Exhibitions at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
For more information on the artist, please visit James Rosenquist's website at www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.
It Heals Up: For All Children's Hospital
made possible by the generosity of the artist
and by Florida's Art in State Buildings Program
Sponsored by Raymond James Financial
with special recognition for All Children's Hospital
The work is accessible to pedestrians and motorists alike.
Detail showing the work angling off the building.
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