Andy Warhol’s Jackie (Gold) is one of the most iconic works in the artist’s oeuvre. Here, Warhol, King of Pop, captures America’s Queen Guinevere at her most distraught, yet most valiant. During turbulent years following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd, 1963, the late president’s tragic death still weighed heavy on American consciousness. Immediately following the assassination, images of Jacqueline Kennedy saturated the media, flooding television feeds and newspaper headlines around the globe. These images had become historical markers before Warhol even painted them. Taken from the cover of the December 6th, 1963 issue of LIFE Magazine, this intimate portrait of Jackie Kennedy’s quiet resilience just weeks after her husband’s shocking death casts a spectral pallor over the glamorous First Lady’s Camelot reign, while reminding a nation in mourning of the strength it requires to carry on. While simultaneously embodying a sense of intensity and calm dignity, Jackie joins Warhol’s pantheon of female stars, alongside Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza Minnelli. She stands as a tragic token of the fragility of life, and one of Warhol’s most powerful memento moris.
Warhol began the Jackie paintings soon after the assassination and worked on them off and on throughout 1964. These paintings were executed at the heart of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, an unconventional series that illustrated how the repetition, even of gruesome devastating images, could “empty” the image of its meaning. Jackie is a by-product of how the media saturated these gruesome and despairing images daily. Warhol extracted the ubiquitous images that flooded mass media and cropped them to be void of any context or background. He created an entire series of images of Jackie that were published in newspapers and magazines and consumed as a cultural phenomenon. He illustrates the imagery of the First Lady fulfilling her responsibilities as a public figure through this catastrophe. 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” (J. Giorno, quoted by V. Brokis, Warhol, 1989).
The image of Jackie overseeing the funeral of her assassinated husband was already familiar to the American public by the time Warhol reimagined it. Coverage of the Kennedy tragedy spanned seventy straight hours on all three of America’s major networks; at the time, it one of the first significant television news event of its kind. Proliferation by the media only heightened the nation’s shared grief for the unfathomable loss of a well-loved leader. As initial, visceral tears dried with time, the country was left to confront the wave of broadcasting technology that made it possible to relive the pain again and again. Well attuned with pop culture and its consequences, Warhol himself commented on these sociological patterns: “I’d been thrilled having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart – but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radios were programming everybody to feel so sad...’ (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, 1980, p. 60). Now more than ever, America could tune-in to one, highly significant woman’s personal bereavement, long after the collective implications had worn away.
Emphasizing the private nature of Jackie’s experience, Warhol uses portraiture for this series – traditionally a family affair that enabled ancestral likeness to pass down from generation to generation. Though the source photograph includes Jackie and her children flanked by two soldiers before a passing crowd, Warhol cut the image and isolates the widow’s great pain against the soldier’s great stoicism. Jackie is recognizable; her features retained in focus, yet the man behind her could be anyone. “By cropping in on Mrs. Kennedy's face, Warhol emphasized the heavy emotional toll upon her during those tragic closing days of November. The so-called Jackie portraits, far from displaying any indifference on Warhol's part to the assassination, clearly reveal how struck he was by her courage during the ordeal" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 181). In this way, Warhol offers an elegiac portrait to reinforce the familial relationship between the First Family and the public. The Kennedys’ suffering was America’s suffering, and only together could they be bold enough to forge forward.
In a twist characteristic of Warhol’s genius, however, this is not the unique representation that will hang over the mantelpiece in perfunctory memorial. With the mechanical action of his innovative silkscreen process, Warhol mimicked the endless repetition of the printing press, which doused the American public with images of Jackie’s face, at both its most joyful and most bereft. Warhol, in appropriating an image of Jackie made for public consumption, explores the hollowness and marketization of celebrity. By commenting on capitalism’s commodification of information, Warhol draws parallels between images of tragedy and images of advertising, connecting Jackie (Gold) to the famous Campbell’s Soup Cans of 1962. Excessive duplication erodes the power of the image over prints, dulling the emotional impact of the event. Endlessly repeated, like an image in a dream, Jackie replays our national trauma. Warhol commented directly on this modern paradox of replication, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel" (A. Warhol quoted in POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, 1980, p. 50).
As Warhol transposes the silkscreened image of Jackie against a gold background, he also references historical paintings of religious icons painted against gold leaf during the Renaissance. He commodifies the First Lady, transforming her into a secular saint for an increasingly agnostic America—a figure who endured great trial, yet emerged an emblem of hope for those in need of comfort.