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Rebecca Niederlander


The summer before my senior year in high school, I took an art history class at the local community college.  We were assigned to write about one painting in the city art museum.  I ended up in front of James Rosenquist's 1962 painting entitledSightseeing.”  It is not a particularly pretty, angry, sexy or even overtly political painting. Not heroic in scale, nor exquisitely petite.  Most of the word SIGHT is painted in the top half, very 2D, and the letters' interior space is filled with images of red roses.  In the center of the bottom half of the canvas are bits of the letter S, two E's, and the letter I.  These letter-shapes are orange and painted on top of an actual broken glass window in a metal frame.  

Sightseeing” doesn't grab the viewer, but something about it struck me, and I chose it.

James Rosenquist, "Sightseeing",
1962, mixed media.
Collection of the St. Louis Museum of Art.
Not knowing what I wanted to say, I sat near the painting and ask the passers-by what they thought of it.  (The St. Louis Art Museum puts huge comfortable padded benches in the center of the viewing rooms, something all museums should do.)  Most people had just passed by the painting, choosing instead to pause before some of larger, more colorful, or more famous works.  But after being asked, they would pause and begin to seriously consider the work.  The responses weren't particularly memorable, but directing someone to an interesting discovery of something they had previously overlooked certainly was.

But I was still wondering why this painting compelled me.

And I realized that I found this painting really FUNNY.  It wasn't funny in a Three Stooges sort of way, but in a deep way, what David Foster Wallace (in his essay "Laughing with Kafka") refers to aswhat communication-theorists sometimes call ‘exformation,’ which is a certain quantity of vital information, removed from, but evoked by, a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.”  It was perhaps one of the first times I really understood the power of humor.  The whole experience was graceful and poignant.

Some 25 years later I still enjoy wordplay, and I still respond to art that navigates through complex humor. . .and I still enjoy directing people to experiences of art they might have otherwise missed out on.