White Bread, 1964
oil on canvas, 54 x 60 inchesﾠ ﾠ
James Rosenquist, considered one of the leaders of the pop art movement of the 1960s, created White Bread, 1964, during a pivotal period in the early years of his long career.
His breakthrough came in 1960, when he quit his signpainting 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 previous abstract expressionist efforts and let his commercial experience invade his art. The result was a series of monumental paintings based on jagged collages of magazine images and views out his window.
White Bread is one of Rosenquist’s best-known works from this period, but it is not typical. The scale is relatively modest compared to other works he created at the time, 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 topmost of which is receiving a coat of the world’s yellowest butter (or, more likely, margarine), courtesy of a very ordinary stainless steel knife.
While commonly associated with pop art, Rosenquist never fit comfortably into the pop category, as this painting demonstrates. On the one hand, he generally eschewed brand names and logos, preferring more generalized commercial images. On the other, he dared to approach commercial illustration techniques even more closely than his pop cohorts, as can be seen in his efficient but careful rendering of the grooves in the knife and the gloss on the butter. At the same time, 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. In this regard, White Bread is similar to the radical simplicity, purity of shape, and sharp contours found in Ellsworth Kelly’s color field paintings. Indeed, some commentators have detected Kelly’s initials in the crusts. The possible influence of Roy Lichtenstein can also be seen in this work. In 1963, Lichtenstein painted Mustard on White, which shows a woman’s hand delivering a bright yellow coating of mustard to a slice of white bread with a knife.
In sum, White Bread is a painting about culture and consumption made at a high point of American consumerism, but it is also a painting about painting, about the application of color to a support and its stunning visual results.