James Rosenquist gained recognition in the early 1960s for paintings in which he juxtaposed images culled from the commercial world but radically altered their size and context. As a leading pop artist alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, he aimed to paint contemporary life, not the tired drips, smears, and splatters of his abstract expressionist predecessors. Spectator–Speed of Light, 2001, however, is the work of the mature Rosenquist, who had come to recognize pieces by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as fresh and stimulating.
Rosenquist has always painted by hand, and close viewing of his canvases reveals a surprisingly brushy style. This is especially true of Spectator –Speed of Light. When viewed from a distance,the painting features a shiny, metallic ribbon, twisting and turning through the picture space. Seen at arm's length, however, the reflective surface dissolves into an abstraction of lines and blobs—completely unrecognizable as a real thing. This effect is something Rosenquist experienced as a young man painting billboards: he could never see the whole picture while working on one part. Spectator –Speed of Light plays with this dislocating encounter, blurring the distinction between abstraction and figuration as one moves backward and forward in front of the painting.
For the Speed of Light series, Rosenquist drew on Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, which describes how someone traveling in space at or near the speed of light would have a very different experience of time and distance relative to a slower-moving observer on earth. Spectator–Speed of Light seems to materialize Einstein's theory in a vortex of bright colors and shapes, a rush of the artist's thoughts and gestures. Scale, size, and space are crucial here, as indeed they have always been for Rosenquist, both in the distorted relationships between elements within his compositions and in the sheer size of his canvases: his famous painting F-111, 1964–1965, measures 10 x 86 feet. "I want people who look at my paintings to be able to pass through the illusory surface of the canvas," he wrote in his 2009 memoir Painting Below Zero, "and enter a space where the ideas in my head collide with theirs."
Spectator–Speed of Light was generously donated by Mr. Robert E. Meyerhoff. It is the second painting by the artist to enter the collection, joining White Bread, 1964, which was purchased in 2008.