Published: November 4, 2003
John F. Kennedy’s presidency, tragically cut short by assassination 40 years ago, had an enormous impact on numerous, diverse artists. The handsome, charismatic president, his attractive, cultivated wife, the aura of hope and idealism surrounding his administration, and the international outpouring of grief after his death, stirred an unprecedented artistic response.
An exhibition documenting the ways in which artists depicted the Kennedy years seems like such a good idea it is surprising that no one has organized one before. The concept was initially proposed by art historian Charles Stuckey, who did not have time to pursue it himself; instead, Stuckey encouraged the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science to assemble the show.
“JFK and Art” is on view through January 4; it then travels to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., February 15 through April 27.
“This is a subject that hasn’t been investigated in depth before,” said Nancy Hall-Duncan, the Bruce’s curator of art, who co-organized the exhibition with curatorial assistant Cynthia Drayton. Accompanying the exhibition is an insightful, well-illustrated catalog featuring an essay by Kenneth E. Silver, professor of fine arts at New York University.
Comprising more than 40 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures, the show includes works by major artists such as Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Jasper Johns, Marisol, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Normal Rockwell, James Rosenquist, Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol and James Wyeth.
The show’s organizers stress that the myth and mystique of the “Camelot” years coincided with the rise of Pop Art in the early 1960s. “The new president’s image figured prominently among the media-inspired icons of daily life that defined the new art movement,” said Hall-Duncan.
As Silver outlines in the catalog essay, JFK’s father, the wealthy and well-connected Joseph P. Kennedy, spent years promoting the image of his son John as best-selling author, World War II hero, dashing member of the House and Senate, and head of an attractive family. Vintage photographs and memorabilia document this effort.
One of the most memorable photographs in the show is Gary Winograd’s view from behind of a dramatically lit JFK emphatically delivering his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The telegenic candidate’s image – from the front – appears on a television screen in the foreground, making this a portrait-within-a-portrait. As Silver writes, Winograd “turned the least possessing of perspectives into photographic gold.”
Another famous photograph, this one by Mark Shaw, immortalizes the White House performance in 1961 by the one and only Pablo Casals. Performed before an audience of the nation’s leading composers and conductors, as well as the President and First Lady, the well-publicized Casals concert marked the high point of the Kennedys’ use of the White House as a cultural bully pulpit.
JFK’s parallel emergence as a national political figure during the advent of Pop Art resulted in images of the youthful new president appearing frequently in media-inspired works of the new art movement. A number of works in the exhibition, based on photographs of Kennedy that appeared in the mass media, reflect the view held among younger artists that JFK represented a breath of fresh air, a symbol of hope, promise and idealism in American politics.
Rauschenberg, then in his late thirties, admired Kennedy as an intellectual, politician and supporter of the arts, and led the way among up-and-coming artists. Among his numerous homages to the president was “Retrospective I,” 1964, an enormous silkscreen that features Kennedy pointing for emphasis, and a parachuting astronaut symbolizing the nascent space program. Other Rauschenberg silkscreens made much of the president’s youthful energy and vibrant personality.
Rivers, a leading Pop Art figure, responded to an historic meeting between Kennedy and French President Charles de Gaulle in 1961 with a characteristic composition that included images of the two leaders and logos of cigarettes from the two nations. “Friendship of America and France (Kennedy and de Gaulle),” 1961-62, symbolizes longtime ties between two old allies.
The exhibition offers an interesting dialogue between depictions of JFK by Elaine and Willem de Kooning. In preparation for a portrait for the Harry S Truman Library in Independence, Mo., Elaine de Kooning did a series of sketches of a fidgety JFK on vacation in Palm Beach. Several of her straightforward preliminary studies, as well as the final oil version, 1962-63, are on view.
By contrast, as an immediate response to Kennedy’s death, Abstract Expressionist titan Willem de Kooning showed the prone figure of the slain leader in swirls of paint, from which JFK is recognizable by his clearly identifiable face. “Reclining Man (John F. Kennedy),” 1963, one admiring artist’s response to the national tragedy, is an “amazing picture,” observed Hall-Duncan.
Another heartfelt portrait by illustrator Bernard Fuchs was executed for Look magazine. The only painting depicting JFK in his famous rocking chair, “The Kennedy I Knew (JFK in Rocker),” 1963, captures both the elegance and contemplative side of the young president.
A somewhat jarring note is struck by one of the few negative pictures in the show, Picasso’s large and arresting “Rape of the Sabine Women,” 1963. Loaned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, it reflects the Spanish-born painter’s anguish over the threat of nuclear war posed by the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis.
According to Silver and Hall-Duncan, Picasso’s composition was based on two great paintings dealing with scenes of destruction: Jacques-Louis David’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” and Nicholas Poussin’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” as well as the work of Francisco de Goya and other sources.
The compelling picture shows two battling warriors on horseback — presumably symbolizing Nikita Khrushchev (right) and Kennedy (left) — brandishing lethal weapons at each other. Victimized civilians in the form of a terrified woman and child are trampled underfoot. Faintly echoing the Communist party member’s celebrated “Guernica,” depicting horrors of the Spanish Civil War, “Rape of the Sabine Women” is a harrowing work.
A less than complimentary image of the First Family is Marisol Escobar’s idiosyncratic wood and mixed media composition, “The Kennedys,” 1960. Suggesting that her position as an outsider inured her to Kennedy charm and that the subject fit her penchant for satirizing the affluent and successful, the sculptor depicted the world’s most famous family unit in rigid, unflattering terms.
“The unpleasant features and wooden quality blatantly invert the usual happy-family imagery,” noted curator Hall-Duncan. “JFK seems almost sinister, with his famous boyish grin transformed into a menacing caricature and the flashing smile a hateful protuberance with gigantic incisors.”
Many years later, Marisol returned to the subject with another unforgettable sculptural composition, “The Funeral,” 1996. Here, the enormous saluting figure of son John John towers over tiny figures in the funeral cortege carrying his father’s flag-draped casket. It is, says Silver, “an image of filial piety and decorum that was forever imprinted on the American psyche in the ghastly days following the assassination.”
Memorial tributes following the president’s shocking murder ranged from nonrepresentational to realistic. Hans Hofmann, a leading abstractionist, conveyed his grief in “To J.F.K: A Thousand Roots Did Die with Thee,” 1963, in which he juxtaposed striking yellow and green rectangles against an irregularly shaped black background. “With just four colors — yellow, green, black and white — and one formal idea — the stark geometry of the rectangles vs the ragged, anarchic formlessness of the stain — Hofmann summed up the vivid intensity of the Kennedy Years: their buoyant, ironic optimism and the unspeakable sadness of their sudden, terrible end,” writes Silver in the catalog.
On the other hand, the ever-optimistic Norman Rockwell’s posthumous tribute to JFK is represented here by an oil sketch, “The Peace Corps,” 1966, a final version of which was published in Look magazine. It shows the martyred president in profile alongside Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, amidst young volunteers for that idealistic initiative of the Kennedy administration.
Warhol, who seems not to have been too deeply moved by the president’s death, did convey his affection for Jacqueline Kennedy in a series of silkscreen images derived from news media pictures. Some show a smiling and then grief-stricken First Lady during the fateful trip to Dallas. Departing from his normal practice of repeating the same picture of, say, Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor, Warhol’s “Jackies” effectively combine multiple, quite different views of Mrs Kennedy.
One of the simplest, and most moving, images in the show is the incomparable Ben Shahn’s sketchy depiction of a fallen man. One of 30 black and white illustrations accompanying Wendell Berry’s memorial poem, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three,” 1963, reflected the great humanitarian artist’s shock and horror at Kennedy’s violent death.
Thick, black lines austerely delineating the figure of the slain leader give the image the monumentality Shahn sought. “The stiffness of the body represents a toppled status of a hero,” observed co-curator Drayton, “which is how Shahn envisioned the assassinated president.”
Wyeth’s deeply introspective closeup of the vibrant face of the late president shows him agonizing over a decision. Based on close examination of photographs and film footage of JFK, as well as hours observing his brothers Robert and Edward in action, Wyeth achieved a perceptive accuracy that moved the Kennedys. Indeed, according to Lauren Raye Smith of the Wyeth Center of the Farnsworth Art Museum, “Robert Kennedy reportedly felt uneasy about this depiction, and said it reminded him of the president during the Bay of Pigs invasion.”
Reprising a brief period when the arts and culture were embedded in the White House, “JFK and Art” recalls how artists helped create an indelible image of Camelot-on-the-Potomac. Moreover, it illustrates, as Silver concludes, that “American artists … possess[ed] a rhetoric equal to the task of conveying the life and death of John F. Kennedy, but, like America itself, it was a rhetoric of brilliant improvisation and striking contradictions.”
The fully illustrated, 127-page catalog accompanying the show is well done. Silver’s essay is informative and thoughtful, and comments on each work in the exhibition by co-curators Hall-Duncan and Drayton provide valuable context. Published by the Bruce Museum, this book will be a useful addition to the bookshelves of students of American art and history.
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science is at One Museum Drive. For information, 203-869-0376 or www.brucemuseum.org.
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