James Rosenquist
Leaky Ride for Dr. Leakey, 1983

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Leaky Ride for Dr. Leakey
Artist name
James Rosenquist
Date created
oil on canvas
78 in. × 198 in. (198.12 cm × 502.92 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson
© James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, NY
Permanent URL
Artwork status
On view on floor 2 as part of Open Ended: SFMOMA's Collection, 1900 to Now

Audio Stories

Discover Rosenquist’s language of symbols

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As a young man in the 1950s, James Rosenquist was trained as a fine artist but made a living as a billboard painter—first in the Midwest, then in Times Square. This double training—and talent—positioned him perfectly to help invent what in the Sixties became known as Pop Art. His large, storyboard-like canvases present sequences of seemingly unrelated images—making visual phrases. The results are at once ambiguous and suggestive. Here, SFMOMA’s curators discuss Rosenquist’s 1983 work, A Leaky Ride for Dr. Leakey 



Rosenquist was incredibly familiar with the vernacular of advertisements and the way objects are portrayed for people driving by in their cars. His revolution is to bring that pictorial vernacular into a gallery or a museum. He offers a very particular take on American life and American art. And it is, in a sense, the shiny, beautiful view. 



How does one read this painting?  



Leakey was very, very famous for his work in the excavations of the earliest human skeletons in the Great Rift Valley, in Kenya. Very crucial contributions, in terms of the understanding of human evolution. So I have to say that, for me, is a key to read the painting as a kind of cosmological picture about the place of humanity in the cosmos. And I read it in a very traditional left to right reading, that the pencil is the kind of most basic technology. It’s how we write, how we convey [our ideas] from one generation to another. 

And then in the middle, it moves into the mechanical, they’re bolts. They look like they could be screwed together, creating a pressure point in the middle of the canvas. And then you move on the—that edge of that black form, and make a ninety degree turn into a vortex. Which is a sense of a galaxy, of space, of time travel. The Big Bang. The birth of the universe.  

This image of a woman’s face represents now. It is about putting on a face, and it represents our moment in culture, but then it’s pulled apart, allowing you to look behind that surface, into infinity. 

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