James Rosenquist’s ‘Expo 67 Mural – Firepole’ is the definition of ‘pop art’

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

To mark Pop Art Day (Jan. 28, 2024), we hope you enjoy this print in our collection.

James Rosenquist (American, 1933–2017)
Expo 67 Mural – Firepole, 1967
Published by Universal Limited Art Editions (West Islip, NY, founded 1955)
Lithograph on paper
32.875″ x 16.937″w
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Museum purchase, A1866,76.0333 

A leading Pop artist whose work was strongly influenced by his years as a billboard painter (1955–58) in New York, James Rosenquist is perhaps best known for his large canvases that juxtapose air-brushed imagery taken from advertisements, magazines, and popular culture. In Expo 67 Mural – Firepole, Rosenquist created an arresting image of a cropped figure clinging to a firepole. He focused our attention on the person’s blue jean-covered legs and stylish black boots, which are effectively contrasted with the vibrant background. With its combination of striking transitions from yellow to dark red and curved white lines (suggestive of fire, smoke, or celebration), Rosenquist pulls us into this lively composition.

This lithograph was based upon his large mural, Fire Slide (1967), which he painted for the 1967 Montreal Expo and was exhibited in the US Pavilion alongside works by other key Pop artists such as Andy Warhol (1928–87), Robert Indiana (1928–2018), Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), and Jasper Johns (b. 1930). Interestingly, Rosenquist revealed that his lithograph represented the US President (then Lyndon Johnson) as a “fireman” who extinguished fires around the world, an allusion to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War at the time. Unfortunately (and ironically), Fire Slide was destroyed in a 2009 fire that broke out in Rosenquist’s home, office, and studio (located in Aripeka, FL).

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and received his formal artistic training at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and at the University of Minnesota from 1952–54.  Beginning in 1955, he moved to New York, where he studied painting at the Art Students League under Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978) and German Expressionist George Grosz (1893–1959). By 1960, Rosenquist abandoned billboard and sign painting, and transitioned to personal, studio-based work. In 1971, after receiving an offer to join the University of South Florida’s collaborative art program, Graphicstudio, the artist moved to Aripeka, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his career.