James Rosenquist, a major American painter associated with pop art, was not represented by a painting in the Gallery’s collection prior to the acquisition of White Bread. This work is a significant addition, joining important paintings from the same period by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as well as numerous prints and several drawings by Rosenquist from all periods of his career.
After studying art with Cameron Booth at the University of Minnesota, Rosenquist moved to New York City in 1955 on a scholarship to the Art Students League. His breakthrough came in 1960, when he got married, quit his sign-painting job, and found a loft in Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, joining a group of young mavericks that included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, and Jack Youngerman. Here Rosenquist gave up his abstract-expressionist efforts and let his commercial experience invade his art. The results were a series of monumental paintings based on jagged collages of images drawn from magazines on his studio floor and views out his window.
White Bread, 1964, is one of Rosenquist’s best-known works from this period, but it is not typical. The scale is relatively modest and the composition is not interrupted by the sharp divisions and overlaid images that usually emerged from his collage process. Instead, the divisions and overlaps are elegantly found in the subject itself—four slices of store-bought white bread, the top one being buttered with the world’s yellowest spread, probably margarine, courtesy of an ordinary stainless-steel knife.
Rosenquist never fit comfortably into the pop category, as this painting demonstrates. On the one hand, he generally eschewed brand names and logos, preferring to use more generalized commercial images. On the other hand, he dared to approach commercial illustration techniques even more closely than did his cohorts: witness his efficient but careful rendering of the grooves in the knife and the gloss on the spread. At the same time, for all of its loving detail, this work can be considered largely as an abstraction. The canvas is divided into simple shapes and the use of the same yellow for both the spread and the background flattens the space, calling attention to the patterns formed by the bread crusts. The compositions of Ellsworth Kelly are not far away (and, indeed, the artist suggested that Kelly’s initials can be found in the crusts).This painting is about culture and consumption and American consumerism, but it is also (even more than most still lifes) a painting about painting—about the application of color to a support and its stunning visual results.