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Pop artist cancels Brandeis show at Rose Art Museum

Rosenquist deals with aftermath of house, studio fire

“If it was a small show or something else, OK. But no way. It’s a big deal. I just can’t do it,’’ James Rosenquist said. “If it was a small show or something else, OK. But no way. It’s a big deal. I just can’t do it,’’ James Rosenquist said. (Suzanne Plunkett/Bloomberg News
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By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / July 30, 2010

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James Rosenquist has pulled out of his planned September show at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, but the famed pop artist said that his decision has nothing to do with the controversy swirling around the museum’s future.

Rosenquist said that complications in the aftermath of a fire last year, which destroyed his Florida home and studio, about $18 million worth of art, and personal items, have made it too difficult for him to participate in the exhibition, which was to have opened Sept. 22 featuring some of his massive paintings, along with other works.

“This is a total outside thing that’s driving me crazy,’’ Rosenquist said yesterday in a phone interview. “If it was a small show or something else, OK. But no way. It’s a big deal. I just can’t do it.’’

Rosenquist, who has a long relationship with the museum, said he told Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz about his decision yesterday morning and sent a letter notifying the school.

“He said, ‘Would you show with us in the future?’ ’’ recounted Rosenquist, who acknowledged that the Rose controversy was also weighing on his mind. “I said, ‘If things get resolved, I would.’ But I don’t want to deal with it, really. It’s a big mess.’’

Rosenquist’s decision marks another setback for the Rose in its attempt to schedule a fall show. The museum’s leaders have been working to restore its reputation since last year, when Brandeis proposed closing the museum and selling its artworks to respond to a universitywide financial crisis. After a backlash from artists, national museum leaders, and Rose donors, Brandeis pledged to hold off on sales and try to find another way to raise money from the museum’s valuable permanent collection. In May, Brandeis said that it would work with Sotheby’s auction house to see whether artworks could be rented to raise funds.

But that was not good enough for three artists — Bill Viola, Eric Fischl, and April Gornik — scheduled to be featured in an exhibition opening in September. They asked that their show be put off until Brandeis agreed to a legally binding agreement never to sell artworks from the Rose collection. After they dropped out, Rosenquist agreed to a solo show, saying that he believed it would benefit the Rose’s future by raising its profile.

In recent weeks, however, he vacillated, particularly after talking with Jonathan Lee, one of several members of the Rose’s board of overseers who is suing Brandeis to block any sale of artworks. At one point recently, Rosenquist said, he demanded a similar written promise from the university not to sell works. The university has not ruled out doing so.

Yesterday, Rosenquist said he was no longer focused on the Rose battle.

“I’m not concerned with that any longer,’’ he said. “That’s out the window of my brain because my brain is stacked full of garbage that I don’t want.’’

Specifically, Rosenquist said that in the last week, he has contended with complications from his fire-related losses, ranging from a tax dispute to the permitting process as he attempts to rebuild his home and studio.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Rosenquist’s personal issues will prevent him from showing,’’ Brandeis spokesman Andrew Gully said yesterday. “We will still have a show this fall. I don’t know what it will be at this point. But we are clearly making every effort to have a vibrant Rose Art Museum. That goal remains.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@mac.com