When James Rosenquist quit his job painting billboards in New York in 1960, he imported many of the techniques of the sign-painting trade into his work as an artist. Fragmenting and recombining images drawn from advertising, using commercial paint, and continuing to work on a large scale, he went against the prevailing tide of Abstract Expressionism, creating, like his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, work that was first labeled New Realism and later Pop art. Rosenquist was already one of the leaders of this new movement when he achieved international acclaim with his monumental painting F-111 (1964-65). Measuring more than 26 meters in length, this work commented on the military-industrial complex that supported America's burgeoning consumer culture and was considered by many to be an antiwar statement.
Throughout his career, Rosenquist's work has registered a fascination with advanced technology and scientific phenomena, especially in relation to space and the cosmos. The heady days of early American space exploration—already prominently alluded to in F-111—are the subject of Flamingo Capsule, which commemorates the three astronauts who died in a flash fire onboard Apollo 1 during a 1967 training session. In the artist's description, the composition suggests "fire in a contained space" and "objects floating around in the capsule." Set against a field of red and yellow are the crumpled foil of a uniform emblazoned with the American flag, a twisted and distorted food bag, and the arc of a balloon floating through the air. Monumental in scale, the work comprises four canvas panels with aluminized Mylar panels attached to either end; these end panels reflect the painted surface, extending the whirling composition beyond the confines of the canvas. While the painting references a specific historical event, its isolation, juxtaposition, and enlargement of objects to billboard-size proportions results in an enigmatic quality typical of much of Rosenquist's work.