Excerpted from a Textual Analysis by Frank D’Antonio:
James Rosenquist’s Volunteer is dated 1964, but, according to Rosenquist, [it was] finished shortly before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I think one of the coolest things about this painting is the use of fragmented symbols to depict the American life in the mid 20th century. The washing machine in the upper right speaks to a viewer as a symbol of American technological progress. The man in the business suit speaks as a symbol of how the American professional was dressing during this time. The ice cream speaks of American’s desire for “gustatory pleasure” (James Rosenquist. Volunteer. 1964. Art Institute of Chicago).
I like this painting because of how it can be interpreted in many different ways. My interpretation is that the artist is being cynical in this piece, depicting things that Americans were concerned with in the era of the mid 1960s. It is interesting to see how Rosenquist interpreted American culture at the time, symbolizing technological advancements, personal appearance, and personal pleasure being the main concerns of Americans at the time, concerns that are still on the top of the list amongst Americans.
The puzzle pieces with a piece missing are also an important aspect of the work. I found no insight into why they exist on the work, so I formed my own opinions. I believe that the missing puzzle piece is the artist separating himself from the mold of American culture he illustrates in this piece. He wants to break the mold as an artist and not fit in to the stereotype that he has depicted in Volunteer.
Many of Rosenquist’s other works have an underlying cynical message to them. Some depicted war machines, most often airplanes, representing his dislike for the war and global tension happening at that time. From my research, the most cynical and interesting part of the picture is Rosenquist’s image of his own palm which stands out past all of the other images. According the Rosenquist, the palm cynically represents “the hand that volunteers”. I see this being cynical, but at the same time pretty spot on. In my opinion, the artist volunteers his time to all who will view his work and will use it to interpret messages about their life and what they view important in it.
Rosenquist is telling us that modern technology, flashy self appearance, and delicious self indulgence are not bad things in and of themselves, but when put upon a pedestal and made the most important things in our lives, we lose grasp on the true meaning of life. We need to separate ourselves from the mold of society, the mold that tells us that bigger is better, only the good looking make it in life, etc, etc. We need to start living as human beings who help each other no matter what.
Volunteer By James Rosenquist is a very interesting piece of modern art, one that challenges us to use the painting as a mirror, and reflect upon ourselves when we look at it. Seeing how we fit the mold he has characterized, and how we can ultimately break out if it.
— Frank D’Antonio
Photographed By Gail at the Museum of Modern Art in March of 2014 NYC while on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.