Andy Warhol's Sixteen Jackies is a complex, provocative example of contemporary American art from the mid 1960s. At the same time it is not terribly far removed from the visual language of two traditional genres: portraiture and history painting. The artist created a reverent, multifaceted depiction of an exceptional First Lady and a sober artistic response to a grim marker in the history of the twentieth century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The canvases that comprise Sixteen Jackies were originally part of the twenty-four examples that Warhol included in his legendary solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1965. This group of sixteen has been in the same private collection since that event.
The individual canvases of Sixteen Jackies directly abut each other to create a grid. This format asserts a sense of structural order, and yet the overall surface of the object is very active: colors changes, sometimes abruptly; moods and expressions range from happiness to sorrow; and the subject may seem intimately close to the picture plane or set back and psychologically withdrawn. But in all cases Mrs. Kennedy is fulfilling her responsibilities as a public figure, regardless of whether she is a sunny presence on her husband's official tours or a grieving widow symbolically holding the United States together during a catastrophe. The manner in which these various images refuse to settle down into coherence is an indication of Warhol's great talents. There is no obvious narrative, only sixteen moments that flicker competitively before the viewer's eyes. The effect feels random, and might recall the jarring experience of switching between news broadcasts during a crisis, or perhaps a dream that keeps flipping between good and bad. This work is indeed a most sophisticated visual response to the assassination and the buzzing Information Age that was its backdrop.
Warhol planned a large and ambitious "Jackie" project in the immediate aftermath of the national tragedy. He cut out a group of eight headshots of Mrs. Kennedy from illustrations in magazines and mass-market publications that memorialized the assassination. The photographs were widely reproduced at the time and several remain potent in their ability to evoke the televised coverage of the funeral. It has been determined that Warhol clipped his images from several printed sources, including the New York Daily News (November 25, 1963), Life magazine (December 6, 1963) and Four Dark Days (Special Publications, Los Angeles, 1963). He arranged the eight photographic details in two columns and made a grid-like collage to serve as the "mechanical" that he submitted to a commercial silkscreen shop. His pencil annotations indicated to the technician that the overall height of the silkscreen enlargements should be 80 inches, and they included the artist's usual reminder that the tonal contrast between black and white should be as strong as possible. (Note that the pictures in Warhol's collage were a mixture of color and black and white reproductions--differences that would be erased in the silkscreen process).
In the first few months of 1964 Warhol silkscreened the eight-image set onto large unstretched pieces of canvas that had been painted a single flat color. The screening produced inky black images. The painted background colors Warhol used were white or gold or one of several shades of blue. Eventually he cut up his big eight-image canvases and accumulated a stockpile of individual portrait heads, each of which could be attached to standardized stretchers measuring 20 by 16 inches. All of the paintings now known as the Jackie series derive from that initial effort. Historical research now suggests that the given presentation of the Jackie subject was conditioned by such factors as the venue, the occasion, the client, and, at the most fundamental level, the size of the wall at Warhol's disposal. Thus a work from the series could be a single portrait head or any manner of multiples. The largest example is Thirty-Five Jackies (1964, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt). In this instance all of the individual units show the same image (the subject grief-stricken, her head in profile, very tightly framed) and all have roughly the same pale blue background.
There are seven works in Warhol's Jackie series that are comprised of sixteen individual canvases. The example presented here, Sixteen Jackies has an equal mixture of white and blue units, and it incorporates five of the eight different portrait motifs at the artist's disposal. Five of its sixteen units feature the image that includes a glimpse of the President in the upper left, with Mrs. Kennedy in the foreground, wearing a characteristically stylish outfit, and offering the public her lovely, radiant smile. Three of the units (all with white backgrounds) feature the portrait in which a stalwart young man in uniform escorts Mrs. Kennedy during the funeral events. Another three (all on blue backgrounds) show the subject up-close and in profile, her head lowered in a tender sadness.
Warhol's Jackie series sits at the heart of his 1960s paintings that address the theme of death and disaster. Exemplary works that preceded his rumination on the Kennedy assassination addressed the following subjects: a plane crash, 129 Die (1962, Museum Ludwig, Cologne); suicide, Bellevue II (1963, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam); highway accidents, Orange Car Crash 14 Times (1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York); poisoned foodstuffs, Tunafish Disaster (1963, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh); and police brutality, Mustard Race Riot (1963, Private Collection). The subject of mortality is overt in Warhol's depictions of the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, New York, and it is a hovering adjunct to his paintings that memorialize Marilyn Monroe.
It is generally accepted that Warhol went out of his way to be a paradoxical figure. During his lifetime many assumed that he was playing the fool, while thought that his peculiar public persona was fueled by heartless calculation. Not surprisingly there is conflicting information regarding Warhol's intentions with the Jackie series. In one of his memoirs he recalled hearing the news over the radio while he was painting in his studio, and he said: "I don't think I missed a stroke." (See POPism: The Warhol '60s, by Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, 1980). His dear friend Henry Geldzahler, on the other hand, was deeply affected by the news and very surprised that Warhol did not appear to be upset. The artist's account continued: "So I hold him [Henry] about the time I was walking in India and saw a bunch of people in a clearing having a ball because somebody they really liked had just died and how I realized then that everything was just how you decided to think about it. I'd been thrilled having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart--but it didn't bother me that he was dead. What bothered me was the way television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad." That fragment of evidence must be considered in light of another, which indicates that Warhol was affected by the assassination, the media-induced emotionalism, or both. Poet John Giorno recalls visiting Warhol at home that day: "We sat on the couch watching the live TV coverage from Dallas. Then we started hugging, pressing our bodies together, and trembling. I started crying and Andy started crying. Hugging each other, weeping big fat tears and kissing" (Quoted in Victor Bokris, Warhol, 1989).
Sixteen Jackies proves to be as inexplicable as Warhol himself. It is most certainly an unconventional portrayal of a remarkable woman during a harrowing episode in her life. It definitely has to be counted as one of Warhol's ruminations on death and political assassination. It is an evocation of human dignity and personal integrity. And it is an artistic statement that is deeply informed by the tenor of the times: the flash of the news and the assault of the media. Last, and certainly not least, Sixteen Jackies is a painting. As an arrangement of shapes and colors on a flat surface it is one of Warhol's great achievements.